Rugby Union: Untimely end to Cooke's tour: Chris Rea examines the legacy of an England manager wounded by snipers' fire

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The Independent Online
WAS he pushed, did he jump or did he simply turn his back on a job which had lost its appeal? Geoff Cooke's insistence that pressure of work combined with weariness were the prime factors in his decision to abandon the labour of love to which he had devoted the last six and a half years and which was far from complete must, for the moment, suffice even if it doesn't quite ring true.

It is not in Cooke's nature to jump ship, although his timing, before the Channel crossing to France, was extraordinary. If we didn't know better, we might be forgiven for believing that the announcement had been timed to cause maximum embarrassment to the Rugby Football Union and all who sail in her.

There were precious few articles written on the subject of Cooke's resignation as England manager last week which didn't mention the word loyalty. But, as Cooke has discovered, nothing guarantees loyalty so much as that fickle impostor success. Regrettably, the restructuring of a hopelessly inadequate selectorial system, two consecutive Grand Slams, a place in the World Cup final and victories over Australia, South Africa and New Zealand were not deemed successful enough in certain quarters of the RFU.

The snipers' fire was getting too close for comfort, and for Cooke, enough was enough. The ever-deepening division between the players and the administrators over the question of material reward was inevitably compromising Cooke's position as the link between the two. He felt he was becoming increasingly detached from his players and, although he has steadfastly championed most of their causes, misguidedly so on occasions, he was aware of a deterioration in what he has always believed was a very special relationship. He also believed, as he did on the Lions tour to New Zealand last summer, that he was becoming supernumerary to requirements. He missed the involvement of those early years of his stewardship when he was more closely identified with coaching. In New Zealand he confided that he was reduced to being a glorified gofer, his most important duties being to order the team bus and to provide tackle bags for training.

His influence as a selector in New Zealand was also diminished and there have been signs of waning power in England's selection this season. However much he may have tried to distance himself from his remarks about Neil Back and his physical shortcomings, Cooke remained convinced that the Leicester flanker was too small for international rugby. Given England's tactical limitations against Scotland and Ireland, his misgivings were fully justified.

Cooke made mistakes. His alignment with the players in their sullen march to the ground in Cardiff three seasons ago and in their refusal to speak to the media after the match, was a grave error of judgement. Even harder to understand was his outburst against the committee of the four home unions for their refusal to allow Wade Dooley to rejoin the Lions party following the death of his father last summer. Apart from the fact that his committee's decision was the only they could have taken in the circumstances, Cooke must have known that even if Dooley had been granted special dispensation, he would not have reclaimed his position in the Test team and that this great player would have finished his career in the undignified shambles of a mid-week side which had abandoned all hope.

These were acts no doubt committed on an impulse to protect his players from what he what he saw as constricting officialdom, but they provided valuable ammunition for the enemy within who believed that his alliance with the players constituted a threat to the very fabric of the game. It is true that Cooke's position on amateurism remained ambiguous, but there was more than a suspicion that, in common with almost everyone except the RFU, he believed that the absurdity of the distinction between rugby-

related and non-rugby-related activities should be exposed for what it is, a sham.

For every hour the players gave to England, Cooke devoted two and, just occasionally, he betrayed resentment that he was unable to profit from it, particularly as he had played his part in raising the playing standards, the public's awareness of the game and, as a consequence, the income derived from it.

With the exception of Cardiff in 1991, Cooke was unfailingly courteous and helpful to the media and those members of the press who criticised him most knew him least. He was also a skilled communicator and will now doubtless be a prime candidate for television punditry.

When Cooke took over as manager the task ahead of him was formidable. He can reflect with pride on his years in office but the realisation of so many of his ambitions is tinged with a certain disillusionment. Nevertheless English rugby can move forward in hope and buoyancy, confident that much is good in the game and that, aided by Cooke's work, there is every chance that it will get even better.

(Photograph omitted)