Rugby Union: Woodward will drop tour rebels

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S professional clubs look certain to lose the political battle over this summer's four-Test tour of the southern hemisphere, but they remain confident of winning their wider war with Twickenham. Clive Woodward, the England coach, will take a full-strength party to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa whether the mutinous power-brokers of the Premiership like it or not, but the Rugby Football Union face huge problems in their attempt to secure contractual control over the red rose elite.

As the ramifications of Northampton's decision to bar their international contingent from all summer tours continued to reverberate yesterday, an emotional but unrepentant Woodward wrapped himself in the Union flag and justified the stand that threatens three leading Saints - Paul Grayson, Tim Rodber and Matt Dawson - with Five Nations oblivion.

"I'm not a bully, I haven't cajoled anyone into doing anything and I'm certainly not in the business of forcing players to choose between club and country," he said. "I'm simply saying that I will not countenance a third party, Northampton in this case, telling me who I can and can't pick for England. I can't do the job if that is going to be the case.

"No one at the RFU tells me how to run this team and I sure as hell have no intention of being held to ransom by the club owners. All I'm interested in is building a side capable of winning the World Cup next year and at the moment it feels like a knife is being put through our dreams.

"Of course I feel for the Northampton guys, but if they can't make themselves available for this tour they will not play against Scotland on Saturday week. That goes for everyone else, too."

Those words effectively torpedoed the Northampton initiative and there were signals last night that Keith Barwell, the Saints owner, was considering a climb-down.

Woodward, who has forged a close and mutually supportive relationship with "Club England" players since taking over as coach last autumn, was backed to the hilt by Jeremy Guscott, still the most glittering jewel in the England crown and one of only two players present at Twickenham yesterday. "Players love playing for their clubs, but ultimately they want to play for their country," he agreed. "I'm available to tour - I'm determined to retain the right to play for England as and when I and the selectors wish - and as far as I'm aware, every other member of the squad feels likewise."

However, there was a sting in the Bath centre's tail and it sent a highly toxic message in the direction of those RFU big-shots, Cliff Brittle and Fran Cotton included, who believe the only way to bring the clubs to heel is to sign up dozens of leading players on union contracts.

"I'm still very loyal indeed to my club which, unlike the RFU, has done a lot for the players," Guscott said. "The clubs have delivered everything they promised us and, in all honesty, I can't say the same for the union. There is no way the England players can turn their backs on the clubs and sign with the RFU; they would be crazy to do so, because it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. I hope all my colleagues stay contracted to their clubs because if they don't, they will forfeit the control they have over their own futures."

Cotton, last summer's victorious Lions manager and now the influential vice-chairman of the RFU management board, continued to play hardball by saying there was "no possible dialogue on the subject of player availability" for the close-season tour.

"Every player declared his availability when he signed his England contract and, as far as I'm concerned, the day these players decide not to play for their country is the day the game dies," he said.

Both Cotton and Brittle, the RFU chairman, denied making any contractual approach to Lawrence Dallaglio, the England captain. They did, however, admit that discussions had taken place with representatives of Gary Connolly, the Wigan rugby league centre.

The Australians have made their position clear by calling on the IB, rugby's world governing body, to enforce the clause in their charter demanding that countries send their strongest possible sides on Test tours.

Woodward will this week ask each of his players to confirm their availability, and he will then select his side for the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield on Sunday week.