Rugby Union / Five Nations Focus: Cooke the architect of English renaissance: Manager bows out on Saturday and leaves legacy for a successful future. Steve Bale reports

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IT IS an entirely reasonable proposition that without Geoff Cooke there would be no new East Stand towering over Saturday's 100th proceedings between England and Wales at Twickenham. Or, come to that, that the old West Stand would be about to go west along with the old East.

HQ is, at fearsome expense, being brought up to date and you could argue that, as it was Cooke as manager who brought the England team up to date, it was he who created the conditions that made the mind-boggling rebuilding feasible and desirable.

When Cooke stepped into this particular kitchen England were under- achievers and even laughing-stocks, and frankly admitted as much. Now that he is about to retire, no one would dare take them anything other than with deadly seriousness.

How, then, was the transformation wrought? The West Stand and Cooke bow out together against Wales and, as chance would have it, it was against Wales that it became obvious that a transformation needed wreaking. It is a painful memory. England had travelled to the 1987 World Cup more hopefully than was merited by the single win over Scotland that had followed defeats by Ireland, France and Wales.

But arrival had done nothing to stifle optimism and they were clear favourites to beat the Welsh in the quarter-final in Brisbane. The ramifications of what ensued are with us still. At Ballymore, England were so bad in their 16-3 defeat that Alan Grimsdell, Rugby Football Union president of the day, called it 'one of the most inept team performances it has been my misfortune to witness', and threw in the word 'humiliation' for bad measure.

I mention this unhappy time not to gloat over past misfortune, though I dare say there will be one or two Welshmen at Twickenham who would not refrain from a wry smile at the memory. No, it is simply to demonstrate how profoundly things have changed. Within weeks Mike Weston, previously chairman of selectors, was appointed manager and within months Cooke succeeded him. Though he had been managing the North divisional side, he was little known, a native of Carlisle long domiciled in Yorkshire.

Weston had wanted to retain the World Cup coach, Martin Green, as a selector. The RFU said no but then found it could deny Cooke nothing when Weston duly resigned. The new man instantly became the most authoritative figure in English rugby, given power and responsibility without which the job would have been impossible. Some within the union have never quite forgiven him.

Too bad for them that 48 matches, 34 wins, two Grand Slams and a World Cup final later, England are once more a major force in world rugby. And though it has patently been the players who have made them such, it was Cooke who by his vision gave them the means to do so. Most - nearly all - of them, not to mention those of us who have perforce watched him at the closest of close hands down the past six and a half years, now salute him.

Mind you, we hacks, of all people, can sympathise with his absolute refusal to watch any more training sessions once Saturday's match is over. As it happens, training, conditioning and fitness - however boring they may all be to look at - were vital components in Cooke's machine. To those of us lengthening in the tooth, 1987 may seem like yesterday but in terms of the way England teams are prepared for their international matches it was another aeon.

You have only to look at the multi-coloured wall-chart which nightmarishly directs the English elite along their training road towards next year's World Cup to realise that, however strong rugby's 'social' aspect may still be at the grass roots, at the top of the tree it no longer exists. Beer? These guys may wear their Courage jerseys with pride for the cameras but they scarcely touch a drop.

Cooke, who has been known to sink a few glasses of whisky in late- night moments, recognised the necessity of this more spartan approach - what the French constantly refer to as English rigour - from the moment of his accession. Here, as he looks mistily back, is how he saw it then, and you do not even have to imagine how differently he sees it now with retirement upon him.

'When we took over confidence was at a very low ebb,' he said. 'The players were feeling insecure, in their own ability as individuals, in their ability to stay in the team, and in their futures in international rugby. The psychological barrier that people talk about did exist. England went on the field with a total fear of failure. They were incredibly inhibited and had been tremendous under-achievers for years.

'All I said was 'If you just want to be failures and under-achievers, carry on as you are going. But if you want to be part of a successful England team you have to get thinking of yourselves as international athletes, as the elite of your sport, and not traditional rugby players'.'

And so, to the chagrin of old- guard RFU types who could not bear the thought of rugger buggers dedicating themselves to the match rather than the post-match, it came to pass, and run, and (perhaps too much even for Cooke's comfort) kick.

Cooke and his crew set off from the depths - remember that the 1980 Grand Slam by Bill Beaumont's team was the only Five Nations attainment of any note in a quarter of a century - and, if only England had scored seven more points against Australia in the 1991 World Cup final, he and they really would have climbed rugby's Everest. But then, as Cooke himself once famously observed: 'If only, the two most useless words in the English language.'

In due course a Grand Slam team developed, and then another. This season Cooke has been involved in something still harder: developing a successor generation as successful as the old one. He is so confident this will happen that, not withstanding the widespread criticism of England's tactical rigidity and try-scoring dearth, he has already publicly stated his expectation that this team will become better than those of 1991 and '92.

That all this has been done with good grace and humour is one of the wonders of the Cooke stewardship. Uncomfortable as he says he still feels with the media, Cooke climbed aboard the RFU's PR bandwagon and stepped on the gas. He could not - he did not - please all of us all of the time, but he managed it for most of us most of the time. English rugby, like Twickenham itself, will never be same again.

----------------------------------------------------------------- ENGLAND'S RECORD UNDER COOKE ----------------------------------------------------------------- (January 1988 to March 1994) P W D L F A France 8 7 0 1 151 88 Ireland 8 6 0 2 164 62 Scotland 8 6 1 1 124 82 Wales 6 3 0 3 104 45 New Zealand 2 1 0 1 27 27 Italy 1 1 0 0 36 6 United States 1 1 0 0 37 9 Australia 5 1 0 4 73 121 Fiji 3 3 0 0 111 47 Romania 1 1 0 0 58 3 Argentina 3 2 0 1 89 27 Canada 1 1 0 0 26 13 South Africa 1 1 0 0 33 16 Overall record 48 34 1 13 1033 546 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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