Rugby Union: Cusworth's appeal for strong lead

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DOWN ON 100 or so acres of prime Worcestershire pasture within a decently thumped penalty kick of the M5, the dim echoes of the World Cup failure cannot compete with the shrill voices of rugby's next generation. At Worcester RFC, they are too busy trying to sort out tomorrow to worry too much about what happened yesterday. Australia won the World Cup, did they? Right, who are our Seconds going to play on Saturday?

Les Cusworth, director of rugby at Worcester, is more concerned about the shortage of players further down the scale than the performance of the elite. He regards extricating kids from the rival attractions of football, videos, computer games and idleness as a more fundamental task. Nothing personal against Clive Woodward, who he knows well from his days with Leicester and England. It is just business. "I'd rather win the World Cup with 125,000 people playing rugby in this country than win it with 2,000 still playing," he says. "There's a wider game out there."

As the top clubs plunged back into the maelstrom of the Heineken Cup and Woodward's extensive apologia prompted a prolonged bout of navel- gazing at Twickenham, it was instructive to talk to Cusworth, who is out in the field every day taking the pulse of the game he loves. "Some cracking work is being done in the schools at Under-16 and Under-18 levels," he says. "We've had the Under-21s coming to train here for the past couple of years and there's some smashing work being done there too, and in the junior sections of clubs the length and breadth of the country. It just needs some real direction from the RFU."

Cusworth is not about to add to the mounting criticism of the beleaguered England coach. "I had the privilege of being involved with the England set-up for three and a half years and I know there's always someone with a better opinion. A lot of progress has been made in terms of application, organisation, skill and player accountability. The whole international scene is more structured, with specialist coaches coming in, and Clive can take credit for that. Broadly, we're going in the right direction. But the national playing structure, now that's a different matter."

That is a sore point in these parts. Instead of welcoming an ambitious young club into the fold, the Allied Dunbar Premiership establishment is threatening to stop promotion from the second division, a reaction dubbed "protectionist" last week by the club's chief executive, Geoff Cooke. Endorsement for the clubs' view, though, came from Woodward, who believes that the "relegation syndrome" only causes added pressure on international players already overloaded with fixtures. Take away promotion and relegation and clubs are free to draft in promising young players instead of flogging their international stars into early retirement. More likely, like Bristol and Harlequins, they will buy clapped out All Blacks to fill the breach. Or, if Fran Cotton, chairman of Club England, has his way, highly paid refugees from rugby league.

Whatever his fate in the coming months, Woodward can look to the future with one first to his name. Not the first England rugby coach to win the World Cup, sadly, but the first to be harangued for the very un-British trait of preparing his team too thoroughly. Only the French have the flair to turn a studied policy of chaos into a work of art. But there is a widespread feeling throughout the game that the pounds 8m spent on reaching the quarter- finals of the World Cup was not the best use of scant resources. Like his team, Woodward cannot win.

On Tuesday, accompanied by Cotton, who, in an interesting reflection of the shifting balance of power, took the centre stage, and Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU, Woodward launched into a typically fluent, if slightly incoherent, analysis of England's failure. The written version, plus recommendations to the RFU and Club England, will be studied this weekend. It was a unique occasion, in its way, perhaps the first time in British sport that there could be no valid excuses for defeat. Cotton pointed out that the Under-18s had finished 11th in a recent tournament, one place behind Chile, and the Under-21s had sunk without trace in Argentina. Clear evidence, he thought, of the need to improve development structures way down the scale.

In no particular order, the priorities identified were: find a degree of stability within the club system, establish a new entente cordiale between northern hemisphere nations to allow a logical co-ordination of the fixture list, oversee the burial of the concept of a British League, set up a progressive structure from club to international level and search high and low for a new Jerry Guscott. "Nothing is going to happen overnight," Cotton promised. But no expense was spared on Woodward and his England team, so the whole well-worn debate seemed distinctly hollow. The competitive structure - national league, European Cup, internationals - seems well balanced, if the clubs can stop bickering for a day or two.

Woodward himself did his cause few favours, even to those of us who believe in the importance of continuity in the England hierarchy. "The power, the width we played the game with, the way we played with our heads up, with no pre-conceived plan. I started to get fairly excited [about winning the World Cup] then," he said. That was halfway through a meaningless annihilation of the USA. The sound of unrestrained mirth from down Sydney way silently filled the room. "Against New Zealand we went out and played with a massive amount of power and passion, but we didn't play with our heads up as we had against Italy and in the warm-up games." And South Africa? That was just a "bad day". Heads down again, too much kicking. Yet Woodward had picked a kicking fly-half. "Clive, he's away to the fairies," as one England player had said in the week before the quarter-final.

Woodward would not be drawn on his plans beyond next summer when his contract runs out. It is widely presumed that he will take the escalator upstairs and become the new elite performance director. "We hope Clive will be a central figure," Cotton added. "But he will make up his own mind." Or maybe the performance of the England team in the Six Nations will make it up for him one way or the other. On past form, no one should hold their breath for a new era of harmony and compromise. Whoever is in charge in 2003 will be saddled with the usual political baggage. It is all a matter of spectacular indifference down in Cusworth country, though he does boast a "crackerjack" of a young outside centre if anyone would care to come and have a look.