Rugby Union: Woodward to remain at helm for Six Nations

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The Independent Online
FEVERISH REPORTS of Clive Woodward's imminent demise as the England coach have been greatly exaggerated, it seems. Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, last night pulled the rug out from under the increasingly voluble "Dick Best for England" brigade by confirming that Woodward would remain in charge for the Six Nations' Championship, which begins in early February. "There will be no changes to the coaching team for the Six Nations," Baron said, "and no approaches have been made to Dick Best or to London Irish, to whom he is contracted." So there.

For his own part, Woodward described recent predictions of his downfall as "unfounded speculation" and insisted that he would not be distracted from preparing the national squad for the revamped international tournament, which he has set his heart on winning after contrasting mis-fires in 1998 and 1999. "I'll be getting together with the other coaches and the players on Monday to look forward to our first game against Ireland at Twickenham on 5 February," he added.

Baron conceded that Club England, under the chairmanship of Fran Cotton, had started working through policy proposals aimed at modernising the management structures of all England teams, from Under-19 level up. "It has been agreed that it is essential to split the roles of manager and coach for all representative sides," the chief executive said. "Those policies approved by the RFU Council will be introduced over a period of time. Some are linked to our World Class Performance Plan, which will shortly be submitted to Sport England for Lottery funding. If successful, the application would facilitate the appointment of a performance and development director by the end of 2000."

It is well known that Woodward has more than half an eye on the performance director's job - he would be daft not to be interested, given the mooted salary of well over pounds 200,000. However, he also cherishes his daily contact with the red rose squad, some of whom he counts among his closest personal friends, and feels he has unfinished business to attend to after the disappointment of England's failure to survive their World Cup quarter-final meeting with South Africa in October. Woodward needs some silverware, and a Six Nations title would do very nicely.

At the same time, there is little doubt that Best, a cold-eyed realist who could never be accused of indulging in Woodward-style flights of fancy, is highly regarded by many good judges, both inside and outside the RFU. If John Mitchell, the current forwards' coach, keeps to his word and returns to New Zealand at the end of the season, Best would be a natural successor. Furthermore, his promotion would enable Woodward to concentrate wholly on managing the team on their two-Test tour of South Africa in the summer, rather than struggling on in his current head cook and bottle-washer's role.

The other great issue of the last week or so - the introduction of a British league next season - also received an airing yesterday as Cardiff, Swansea and Llanelli accepted places in the pounds 85 million venture proposed by Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester owner and full-time bane of rugby's traditionalist wing. "The time has come for hidden agendas to be disposed of and the reality of professionalism embraced in a joint venture between clubs and unions," Peter Thomas, the multi-millionaire financier behind Cardiff, said, in an attempt to bring the whole cross-border debate to an early and relatively painless conclusion.

"All three of us have accepted an invitation to join a British league, commencing in August 2000," he continued. "We have signed a memorandum of understanding. This has been done in direct dialogue with the Welsh Rugby Union and with their support and approval. The package, both in terms of playing structure and finance, will at long last give the professional clubs an opportunity to survive. Without it, we might as well pack up and go home."

Thomas's assertion that the WRU was fully on board places enormous pressure on Twickenham to give the project its blessing. At the moment, the RFU has two proposals on the table: Walkinshaw's, which the ever-suspicious Cotton has already dismissed as "a dash for cash", and a report from the Club England working party chaired by Rob Andrew, which suggests a re- structuring based solely around the Allied Dunbar Premiership and, as far as anyone can tell, has no new money behind it whatsoever. It will not take long for the hard-pressed club owners to decide on their preferred option.

Meanwhile, the International Rugby Board yesterday named a 34-strong panel of referees for next year's Test programme. The Australians are best represented with five - well, they win everything else - while both England and Wales contribute a quartet of officials. Chris White, the brightest English refereeing talent for many a moon, will control the Wales-France match on the opening Six Nations weekend.