Rugby Union: Red faces as McGeechan rebuffs RFU

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Ian McGeechan, haloed hero of the Lions' epic Test series victory over the Springboks earlier in the summer, yesterday turned his back on the laughably mishandled free-for-all surrounding the England coaching job. The Yorkshire-born Scot's decision left Jack Rowell, the much-maligned incumbent, firmly entrenched on the moral high ground and the Rugby Football Union's newly installed hierarchy cringing with well-earned embarrassment.

McGeechan advised members of the RFU's national playing committee of his withdrawal from the running a mere 24 hours after Fran Cotton, the high-profile vice-chairman of Twickenham's management board, was quoted as describing him as "the one option for England coach". Cotton was also reported to have identified "weaknesses" in Rowell's armour, namely his approach to selection and man-management - a fairly withering condemnation in anyone's language.

Not surprisingly, Rowell was deeply upset by the outburst, just as he was when his job was being hawked nakedly around the southern hemisphere during the build-up to the one-off Test with Australia in July, and he discussed the matter with Cotton yesterday afternoon. If the RFU now decide to stick with the status quo after plumbing the depths of crass insensitivity - they might look at their own man-management skills before criticising those of other people - they will have to bring a charm offensive to the negotiating table as well as a new contract for Big Jack.

Rowell's current deal expires on Sunday week, two days after the RFU are scheduled to reach a final decision on who will fill the most important post in the English game.

McGeechan's "thanks, but no thanks" decision leaves Rowell head and shoulders above any other British candidate in terms of experience and success at international level and it may well be that he will be asked to see his country through to the 1999 World Cup.

He was a paragon of diplomacy yesterday, saying merely that he remained keen to continue at the helm. "Over the last two years we've cut away some of the undergrowth and are seeing the green shoots emerge as a result," he said. "I've made no demands whatsoever to the RFU or anyone else. Everyone knows that I have a number of business interests outside of rugby and that those interests require a great deal of attention, but I remain hopeful that some balance can be struck."

There was no word at all from McGeechan, whose reasons for rejecting the RFU head-hunters remained a matter of conjecture. His lucrative contract with Northampton, where he remains director of rugby, still has six years left to run and the heavy compensation demands of Keith Barwell, the club's millionaire owner, were an obvious sticking point. Indeed, Barwell had been adamant throughout the whole sorry episode that his man would stay at Franklins Gardens. One England insider painted a different picture, however. "Perhaps he saw the way Jack had been treated and decided the penny wasn't worth the candle," he said.

"If this situation had been allowed to develop in a business environment, heads would have rolled long ago - and I'm not talking about Jack's head, either. It's been pathetic, to be honest with you. It's been like waiting for a man to go to the gallows for no reason apart from the fact that he challenged people who were too used to life in the comfort zone."

Last night, the RFU put out a statement saying that Cotton and his fellow national playing committee members would "continue their discussions with Jack Rowell and other candidates for the position". Those candidates include Richard Hill, the Gloucester coach who played under Rowell at Bath, and two current Bath coaches, Andy Robinson and Clive Woodward. John Mitchell, Sale's successful import from New Zealand, is also under consideration.

Antipodeans are not, however, flavour of the month with the RFU's influential traditionalist lobby. Bob Dwyer, who coached Australia to the 1991 World Cup and guided Leicester to Pilkington Cup victory last season, was contacted by the RFU some months ago, as was Graham Henry, the tactical mastermind behind the Super 12 champions Auckland, as recently as early July, but the popular view at Twickenham is that English rugby is not yet ready for a southern hemisphere culture shock.

Whatever the outcome, the new domestic season will kick off on Saturday with the RFU smelling of anything but roses. Conspiracy or cock-up? As one Rowell supporter put it yesterday: "It's a bit of both. Basically, the RFU has managed to cock up their own conspiracy."