Rugby Union: England in shock after Cooke's resignation: Manager with the winning touch to put work and family before country, but sudden departure leaves many questions unanswered

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The Independent Online
GEOFF COOKE detonated a bombshell over English rugby yesterday when he announced that he would resign as the England manager after the Five Nations' Championship ends against Wales in 18 days' time. It will take some time for the smoke from the explosion to clear.

The decision, taken ostensibly because the 52-year-old Cumbrian was finding it impossible to combine his unpaid England duties with his working and family life, poses many more questions than there are answers. While it is true that his job as chief executive of the National Coaching Foundation in Leeds had become increasingly demanding, he had given no inkling that he was considering such a drastic course.

On the other hand, he has made enemies with his straight talking and the radical policies which have improved not only the playing standards of England's players but also their welfare. For one so successful he has suffered inordinate criticism and there are too many on the Rugby Football Union committee who are glad he is soon to go. Though he had been appointed through to next year's World Cup, Cooke's position was subject to annual review and the last time there was a vote he only just scraped in.

This shows that those opposed to him want it both ways. Under Cooke's intelligent, articulate and usually rigorous regime, England went from under-achieving also-rans and even occasional laughing-stocks to champions, achieving the first consecutive Five Nations Grand Slams since the Twenties and reaching the World Cup final.

But committee backwoodsmen who pined for a more authoritarian and amateur era never forgave him for consistently taking his players' part, particularly in the interminable debate over rugby union's accelerating professionalisation.

His acquiescence, and indeed participation, in the team's refusal to give post-match interviews after the 1991 match when England won in Wales for the first time in 28 years was a deeply embarrassing example for which he, rather the players who instigated it, accepted the blame. Cooke's outraged reaction to the home unions' committee's refusal to permit Wade Dooley to rejoin last summer's Lions tour of New Zealand after the funeral of his father confirmed his opponents' outraged suspicion that he could not care less about outdated proprieties.

Now a successor will have to be hurriedly appointed to manage the England tour to South Africa at the end of the season and continue to the World Cup, also in South Africa.

Cooke's detailed explanation will not be made known until the England team who play France in Paris on Saturday meet in London tomorrow. Yesterday he contented himself with this prepared statement: 'I had originally hoped to continue until the 1995 World Cup but it has become increasingly difficult to reconcile the demands of being England's manager with my personal and business life.

'I believe it is in the best interests of the England team for me to end my involvement at the end of the current Five Nations' Championship and, by making this clear now, it will allow the RFU sufficient time to appoint my successor.'

Cooke revealed his decision on Saturday night to his stunned management colleagues and the captain, Will Carling, and on Sunday restricted the doleful news to a few senior players gathered with the rest for team training at Twickenham.

The edifice Cooke has constructed will inevitably come under scrutiny and may even come tumbling down. First there is the manager's appointment, for which the England A manager and coach, Jack Rowell and Peter Rossborough, as well as the England selector John Elliott are obvious candidates.

Who gets the job will depend on whether the role remains as powerful as under Cooke or is reduced to the merely organisational as it is in Australia and New Zealand. There are other questions. Will the new man, like Cooke before him, be empowered to choose his own coaches, and if so, where would that leave the present incumbents, Dick Best and Mike Slemen?

And what will be the effect of the severing of the symbiotic relationship between Cooke and Carling?

After all, the new manager would owe none of the intense, protective loyalty that Cooke has given since Carling was given the responsibility in 1988.

Whoever takes it on will receive a richer bequest than Cooke did in

October 1987. During his managership England have won 33 games, lost 13 and drawn one, defeating all the major rugby countries and promoting rugby union to unprecedented popularity.

'Geoff's retirement will cause a considerable sense of loss, not only for me but for all the England players who have played for him,' Carling said. 'It is my belief that he has been the prime mover in England's change of fortune since he took over.' From one so close, it was an oddly muted farewell.

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE COOKE ERA ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1991 World Cup finalists (beaten 12-6 by Australia) 1991 Grand Slam 1992 Grand Slam (first back-to-back Grand Slams since England 1923 and 1924) ----------------------------------------------------------------- FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1988 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3rd 1989 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2nd= 1990 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2nd 1991 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1st 1992 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1st 1993 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3rd ----------------------------------------------------------------- OVERALL RECORD ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A 47 33 1 13 1,029 518 -----------------------------------------------------------------

THE POSSIBLE SUCCESSORS

JACK ROWELL

Bath coach, former England A manager

Rowell is the most successful coach in England, having seen Bath to the cup seven times and the league four times in 10 years. But he has also become an England insider, first as a successful England B coach and then, more reluctantly, as manager of the A-side when the letter was changed.

PETER ROSSBOROUGH

England A manager

The ex-England full-back, capped seven times in the early 1970s, has already been an England manager. When Cooke was in New Zealand managing the Lions last summer, Rossborough was heading the England tour to Canada. Coach of the Midlands and formerly of Coventry, he succeeded Rowell as England A coach this season.

JOHN ELLIOTT

England selector, Under-21 manager

Elliott, a hooker for Nottingham in his playing days, has been Cooke's faithful lieutenant since he became a selector in the first batch of appointments after Cooke's own installation in 1987. Elliott's managerial experience comes from the England Under-21 side.

Five Nations Focus,

Pilkington Cup draw, page 34

(Photograph omitted)

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