Rugby union: Will he stay or will he go?

David Llewellyn reports on the furore raised by the news that the coach may quit
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Jack Rowell had no sooner uttered the thought that he might step aside at the end of England's Five Nations campaign than the Rugby Football Union were muttering about offering the national coach an extended contract that would carry him beyond the next World Cup in 1999.

Mind you, there were rumours that Ireland brought forward their offer of a six-year coaching contract to Brian Ashton, an Englishman, because he had been approached by other countries, the implication being that England was one of them. Rowell surprised Twickenham yesterday morning by announcing on BBC Radio that his business commitments - he has just been appointed chairman of Celsis International, a Cambridge-based biotech company with offices in the United States and Holland - were making it difficult for him to hold down two jobs.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "It's been a big thing in my life and I've enjoyed it. We've been rebuilding over the last couple of years and we are starting to make progress, so if I give it up it'll be with the utmost reluctance. When we were training [at Twickenham] on Thursday I did look around the empty stands and think this could be the last time. There was a tinge of emotion there."

Yesterday it emerged that Rowell had had discussions during the week with Derek Morgan, the chairman of the RFU's National Playing sub-committee, in which the England coach's future was examined. "Nothing will be decided until after the Five Nations' Championship," Rowell insisted. "I would like to carry on to the World Cup but we have to make sure it is a practical proposition for both sides." It looks likely that Rowell will be offered a contract keeping him in charge for the next two and a half years.

If he does resist the new offer and leaves his post, probably before England's tour of Argentina in the summer, there is a long list of possible successors, headed by the Australian Bob Dwyer, who is the director of rugby with Leicester and regarded as one of the best coaches in the world. Ashton apart, the Harlequins coach Dick Best, who has had one spell in charge of England, is believed to have a clause in his 10-year deal that prohibits him from accepting a post with the national side.

Rowell was not the only one talking of last appearances at Twickenham. When asked if France was his last bow, the former captain Will Carling said: "I think probably, yeah." As last appearances go it was not quite what either man had planned.

Carling had his moments, especially early on when England threatened to run away with it. Phil de Glanville looked like he wanted to make a point or two to the Lions selectors and he certainly exhorted his men right to the bitter end.

It was a match that had been billed as the ultimate test for England. The defeat may be what will make up Rowell's mind for him. Carling's grim features as he headed to the dressing room certainly suggested he had made his decision.

The possible succession: Five men in the frame to take the reins

Bob Dwyer

Acknowledged as one of the best coaches in the world. Guided Australia to World Cup victory in 1991. After being sacked, moved to Racing Club in Paris before going to Leicester this season. Has taken Tigers to the final of the Heineken European Cup and to challenging Wasps for leadership of the Courage League.

Les Cusworth

At present one of Rowell's assistants with special responsibility for backs strategy. RFU have made no secret of the fact that they want to set up a natural progression. Cusworth, an inventive fly-half for Leicester and England, may not have quite the experience but would still have a strong case for consideration.

Mike Slemen

Also an England coach, having worked under two masters - like Rowell, Geoff Cooke used him to oversee the backs coaching. Has a wealth of experience, but as a full-time teacher may be reluctant to give up the certainty of his present employment for a notoriously uncertain one in professional sport.

Richard Hill

Coach of England A and also tasting modicum of success as coach at Gloucester. Has made no secret of his ambitions and would not lack in motivational ideas. Again a perceived lack of experience, although the RFU's National Playing Committee would probably have his name near the top of their list.

Keith Richardson

Working on England A team with Hill and has a vast coaching experience. Long association with Gloucester before moving to Harlequins. Now at Newbury. Has helped out with full England side as specialist forwards coach. Took charge of now defunct Emerging England, since absorbed by England A concept.