Rugby Union: Woodward mourns Cotton's departure

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CLIVE WOODWARD may feel "devastated" by the latest theatrical turn of events in the strife-torn corridors of English rugby power but significantly, he is not quite upset enough to follow Fran Cotton, his close friend and mentor, into the wilderness. Cotton resigned his post as vice-chairman of the Rugby Football Union's management board on Saturday in protest at the union's abrupt marginalisation of Cliff Brittle, his great ally on the fundamentalist wing of the RFU. Woodward, however, will remain in place as national coach.

It is safe to assume that Peter Brook, the RFU president whose belated attempt to break the deadlock between the union and its professional clubs sparked the current wave of public posturing, would far rather have seen the back of Brittle. There is no sign of the hard-line management board chairman stepping down, however, and it seems certain that he will once again seek a special general meeting to reinforce his position.

Cotton's resignation came within hours of an RFU decision to drop Brittle from its negotiations with the clubs over player contracts, fixture schedules and control of broadcasting and sponsorship rights. "Cliff was elected by a three-to-one majority and if anyone has the right to a seat at the negotiating table, he has," said the former England and Lions prop. "What we are seeing here is an inevitable RFU compromise that sells the game down the river for the membership. It has handed power to the clubs and the risks of that, not just for England but for the rest of Europe and, indeed, the game worldwide, are just mind-blowing."

Woodward was rather more concerned at the loss of Cotton's input at England team level. "It's a disaster," he said in tones that suggested that Cotton had not only left the management board but the planet, too. "I can hardly believe he's gone. I wouldn't have taken this job on unless I'd known that Fran was there in charge of playing matters. He was invaluable, an inspirational presence."

The clubs, however, believe the ice has been broken and the Rubicon at least partially crossed: "I think we can do business now," said Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive. Brook will reveal the make-up of the new four-man negotiating panel today and talks will start almost immediately in an effort to hammer out a lasting agreement by the beginning of May.