Rugby Union: RFU should turn to pair of Wasps

Chris Rea says Jack Rowell's departure has been another painful lesson
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The Independent Online
It Has been another gruesome week at the office for the Rugby Football Union. Their handling of the national coaching job has been a shambles, a public relations fiasco. The only one to emerge with his dignity, if not his reputation, intact, is Jack Rowell, the victim of the RFU's shabby behaviour. He has inevitably chosen to fall on his own sword, but only once he had been fatally stabbed in the back.

As much as I admire and respect Fran Cotton, his recent outbursts have not been in the best interests of the game or the RFU, and have played into the hands of those who accuse him of abusing the position he has assumed as a result of Cliff Brittle's victory last month. "Fran Cotton thinks he can walk on water," said one critic. "But he's a little bit too heavy for that." The only conclusion to be drawn from Cotton's forthright criticism of Rowell is that the RFU were hell-bent on getting rid of him no matter how often they were thwarted in their attempts to find a successor.

On the other hand, in the RFU's new mood of openness, honesty and integrity, perhaps Cotton feels that he has fully entered into the spirit of the new creed. Despite the eulogies written about Rowell in the last couple of days there can be no question that he was a poor manager of men and an even worse selector. Openness and honesty then, but in the matter of integrity it is Rowell who has won the handsomest of victories.

Beset by internal squabbles and in the midst of the post- Hallett and Herridge reconstruction, the RFU are still a long way from getting their act together. In the frenzy of blood-letting they have been giving scant attention to the matter of the England coach and when eventually they got it in their sights their scatter-gun approach has made them a laughing stock. What on earth was the approach to the Auckland coach, Graham Henry, all about? And what for that matter did they think they were doing offering the post to Ian McGeechan who, a long time ago, had given the Scottish Rugby Union the clearest undertaking that he would never forsake them for the Sassenach shilling?

There is now a small but proud and happy band of coaches who have not been approached by the RFU although the bleak fact is that the cupboard is bare of men even partially qualified to do the job. Geoff Cooke, whose contribution to the English game has never to my mind been fully appreciated, has always argued that no matter the track record of the individual, it takes at least two years to settle into the job of national coach.

Of those Englishmen mentioned as potential successors to Rowell only Roger Uttley and Dick Best have been there and done it, Uttley as Cooke's assistant and Best under the direction first of Cooke and then of Rowell. It is hard to believe that Best, despite his undoubted qualities, is a serious contender given his own problems with man-management. Uttley, sound, solid and reliable, did a magnificent job in organising and motivating the England forwards in the years leading up to the 1991 World Cup, but he had limitations which were fully exposed as the game developed at an ever-quickening pace.

As a manager, however, he would in all probability be an excellent choice, although as a contemporary of Cotton and Bill Beaumont it would seem like a reunion of old comrades, especially if, as now seems likely, Clive Woodward, another member of Beaumont's Grand Slam winning side of 1980, joins the team on a part-time basis.

To my knowledge no approach has yet been made to one of the most successful coaching partnerships in England, the quietly efficient and forward-thinking Wasps pair of Nigel Melville and Rob Smith. Unlike so many of their recklessly spendthrift rivals, Wasps have kept their recruitment drive in the professional era relatively modest.

Over the years, first as a player and then as coach, Smith, the most loyal of club servants, has succeeded in making a little go a very long way and has, by his unflagging conviction and gentle persuasion, made Wasps not only one of the most successful club sides in Britain, but also one of the most entertaining. His association with Melville is a harmonious one and at the highest level it would probably stand up to the rigours and relentless scrutiny which goes with that particularly territory. But even if they were available there is the question of cost to the RFU.

In a recent radio interview, Dick Best mentioned a figure approaching pounds 1m as the price the RFU would have to pay for a top-quality coach. Like most of the financial dealings in the past year this figure is the stuff of fantasy and would merely add to the mounting debt of a game which is paying out so much more than it is taking in. This weekend the plight of Wigan, coupled with the name of Jack Rowell, should stand as the gravest of warnings to a sport which, financially and morally, is in danger of disintegration.