Rugby Union: Class act undone by parlour politics

Chris Hewett assesses the legacy of Jack Rowell, the coach who won the battle to restore England's rugby pride but lost the power game at Twickenham
Click to follow
Say what you like about Jack Rowell - and the most outspoken of his recent critics, Fran Cotton, did precisely that at the weekend in a now notorious public outburst - but as all successful businessmen know, the bottom line is the only thing that really counts. Rowell stayed well above that line in his three and a half years as England coach and if his successor, whoever he may be, does half as well between now and the turn of the century, it will be some achievement.

It is a measure of Rowell's stature as a rugby figure that the Rugby Football Union are now likely to employ two men to fill a role he happily performed on his own - "I live Margaret Thatcher hours," he once said, referring to his contemptuous disdain for regular sleeping habits - and a quick glance at a bulging credit column tells its own story. Thirteen league and cup trophies with Bath in a golden decade from 1984, supplemented by a Grand Slam, three Triple Crowns, a World Cup semi-final and 21 Test victories from 29 starts with England.

Why, then, the dissatisfaction that undeniably circulated around the highest echelons of the English game as Rowell cautiously but sensibly rebuilt his national team from the wreckage inflicted by Jonah Lomu on that crucifying afternoon in Cape Town in June 1995?

Why should the Cottons, Dick Bests, Geoff Cookes and Don Rutherfords of this world have felt the need to undermine the efforts of a man whose commitment to his country's rugby fortunes could never have been questioned, not even by his most implacable enemy? After all, Rowell was and remains every bit as fanatically English as the most decorated of Twickenham's wing-commander population.

As is so often the case, strong personalities lay at the root of the problem. Rowell could be prickly, confrontational, challenging and waspish. He did not suffer fools gladly - indeed, he did not suffer them at all - and while he found it easy to do things his way in the small town environment of Bath, the parlour-game politics habitually played out at Twickenham were always likely to frustrate him. And frustrated he was; as recently as Monday afternoon he was professing genuine disbelief at the situation in which he found himself.

Not exactly one of life's natural diplomats, he quickly learned to curb his instincts and say the right thing in the right place. But, occasionally, he would drop his guard. During last season's Five Nations' Championship he let rip in a newspaper interview, damning his RFU persecutors in no uncertain terms. A year previously, he had turned the scatter-gun on the press, accusing his journalistic critics of undermining his status in the business community with their ill-informed and gratuitous comments.

More worryingly, his aggressive approach to sporting psychology left some senior members of the national playing squad cold to the point of frostbite. Phil de Glanville, his protege with Bath and England, describes him as a "brilliant motivator and analyst of players' strengths and weaknesses", but privately, the likes of Will Carling and Tim Rodber would express very different views.

There were errors of judgement on the selection front, too. Rowell was a year late in bringing De Glanville into his first-choice side and when he finally bit the bullet last season, he dropped the wrong person - Jeremy Guscott - to accommodate him. It was Carling who should have gone, but in the battle of the big egos, the glamour puss from Harlequins carried too much heavy artillery.

And what of Paul Hull, England's best player in South Africa in 1994? Rowell handled the Bristol full-back with insensitivity, wrecked his fragile confidence and ultimately cost England the services of a brilliantly instinctive, attacking footballer. Ludicrously, he showed a similar lack of sympathetic acumen by snubbing Alex King, the brightly gifted young Wasps outside- half, in favour of Rob Andrew in Cardiff last season.

But the successes far outweigh the mistakes. Under Rowell's stewardship, more than a score of new internationals have been blooded and some - Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Simon Shaw, Mark Regan and Tim Stimpson, for instance - look the long-term part.

"A lot of work has gone into the development of this team and I'm proud of it," he said on Monday, 48 hours before pulling up the drawbridge and disappearing inside Chateau Jacques for good. "You have to understand that after the '95 World Cup, we had a mountain of work to do. We weren't picking low-lying fruit, but going out on a limb to find fresh, young players capable of being moulded into Test performers. Look at the side now and you'll agree that we found quite a few."

During his days as a club coach, Rowell was fond of purveying one of his more arrogant catch-phrases. "It might be good enough for England, but it's not good enough for Bath," he would inform his players as they trained under that merciless, almost reptilian gaze of his.

After the events of the last few months, he will be perfectly entitled to tell anyone who cares to listen: "It was good enough for England, but not good enough for the RFU."

Comments