Rugby Union: Manager's winning problem

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The Independent Online
A CONVERSATION with Geoff Cooke seven years ago prompted the notion of a purpose so alien to the hidebound traditions of English rugby that there was sure to be trouble ahead.

As I recall it now we were sitting in a dressing-room at Gosforth rugby club shortly before England played Scotland at Murrayfield in 1988, and Cooke, more or less fresh to the role of manager, was setting out the future that shaped up in his mind.

The essential, he argued, was a routine of self-sacrifice hitherto unheard of in the club-houses and committee rooms of English rugby. 'We can no longer approach the game half-heartedly, otherwise we're destined to be second rate,' he said. If this raised the dreaded sceptre of professionalism, Cooke nevertheless was adamant. Expansion would make greater demands on the players, he argued, and to succeed internationally, they would have to dedicate themselves without reservations.

Immediately, it could be imagined such a policy would be regarded as heresy in committee and quickly make enemies for Cooke, who was running risks similar to those that eventually brought about Sir Alf Ramsey's downfall.

Even while England's success in the 1966 World Cup was being celebrated, senior Football Association officials, who had been forced to concede influence in team matters, were conspiring against him. 'I don't think we want too much more of this man,' one of them was heard to say. By all accounts, similar thoughts have been expressed about Cooke during gin and tonic time at Twickenham.

Cooke, in common with Ramsey, was a players' man, concentrating his efforts on them fully. Under him they won two Grand Slams, almost defeated Australia in the World Cup final and were feared by every rugby-playing nation. Ramsey's reward was the sack in 1974, Cooke's to discover last September that he had survived by the narrowest of votes at a meeting of Rugby Football Union's executive committee; 7-6 with 14 abstentions.

This tells us a lot about British sport. It speaks of envy, ingratitude, obsession with power and a searing mistrust of attitudes that are not subordinate to anachronistic values. In English rugby the very hint of a professional approach carried unspeakable implications.

For Cooke it meant running foul of administrators who are determined to maintain the pathetic masquerade of an amateur game in the face of burgeoning commercialism.

Maybe it was indiscreet of Cooke to link up with the management company that acts for some England players, including most conspicuously, the captain, Will Carling, but in every other respect his approach was admirable.

Cooke's resignation, or rather the situation that brought it about, echoes another time in another country. After masterminding a triumphal expedition by the Lions, and when considered to be cerebally ahead of any influence in the game, Carwyn James was lost to Welsh rugby when he refused to apply for the post of coach that should have been his by invitation.

With James at the helm, and allowing for defections to rugby league, Welsh rugby is unlikely to have gone into the decline that preceded this season's encouraging revival.

Thus English rugby may well come to rue Cooke's disenchantment. A flawed performance against Scotland and the defeat by Ireland at Twickenham probably encouraged some RFU committee members to speak out further against Cooke, believing him to be dispensible.

This indicates loose thinking on their part. It also suggests that diehard principles were built into the foundations of a new Twickenham. You only have to ponder this thought for a moment to infer what it implies; an administration so authoritarian, with a grip so vice-like, that all forms of initiative are effectively supressed.

The initiative Cooke spelled out at Gosforth clearly has been anathema to some in authority. It embraced a fundamental idea about sport. It is called winning.