Rugby Union: Woodward's `failure' may earn promotion

THE VULTURES are gathering on the rooftops of Twickenham, but there will be no corpse for them to pick at until next summer at the earliest. Even then their intended prey - Clive Woodward, the England coach and scapegoat-in-chief for the red rose army's World Cup failure - is likely to prove frustratingly elusive. Woodward intends to stay on as head honcho until his contract expires in August, at which point he may well head for the Rugby Football Union escalator rather than the exit door.

Amid a babble of Chinese whispers and politically correct double-speak at Twickers yesterday, one thing appeared certain: Woodward will be a leading contender for the RFU's lucrative new performance directorship when the men in power suits meet to appoint their man at the end of the season. The post, authoritatively said to carry a salary well in excess of pounds 200,000, will be a central plank of the union's attempt to drag its management structure into the 20th century, even though the 21st century will already have dawned. "If it's what I think it is," said Woodward, rather cryptically, "it's a vital job."

And one he clearly fancies, although he would not acknowledge the fact in so many words. His uncharacteristically reticent approach was wholly understandable, given the grief he had just endured over his now infamous "judge me on the World Cup" remark, but the absence of any obvious desire to lead his country into the 2003 tournament in Australia and New Zealand indicated that he had something else in mind. "There comes a point when you need to bring in someone to contribute new ideas and move the whole thing on," he said. "When I step down, I want to do it professionally and properly and give my successor a stable base from which to work. It's all about moving forward in a rational manner, rather than me throwing my toys out of the pram."

Woodward has the support of Fran Cotton, the chairman of Club England, who wants to see his fellow Lion and Grand Slam team-mate from 1980 continue at the fulcrum of the England operation. "We need the right man for the job and we'll scour the world to find him, but I think Clive has a tremendous amount to offer," said Cotton. "It's not a matter of head-hunting the best available performance director, because performance directors don't exist in rugby at the moment. What he has brought to England is a vision of how we should play the game. I want to see him continue as a central figure and I'm sure he'll want to throw his hat into the ring."

Of course, everything hinges on England's performance in the Six Nations' Championship and, to a slightly lesser extent, on their subsequent tour of South Africa, where they are scheduled to play Tests in Pretoria and Cape Town. If the they secure a first northern hemisphere title in four years, which might well involve beating the reigning champions, Scotland, and the recent World Cup runners-up, France, on enemy soil, the momentum behind Woodward's promotion would be unstoppable. On the other hand, another international misfire would stop it dead in its tracks. "There is no room in this game for jobs for the boys," admitted the coach in a moment of candour. "That really would be balls."

While relishing the challenge of forthcoming visits to Edinburgh and Paris, Woodward could not help harking back to the desperate disappointment of England's quarter-final demise at the hands of the Springboks a little over three weeks ago. "I still find it impossible to put my feelings into words," he said. "Our preparation had been spot on and as we moved into the competition I genuinely felt we could achieve something special. I believed we could catch the world cold by turning our game around and playing a style of rugby different from anything previously seen from an England side.

"We put massive emphasis on our pool game against New Zealand because we knew that defeat would mean facing the Springboks in Paris four days after a play-off match. I take full responsibility for what happened, of course I do, but it was always going to be a tall order against South Africa. Sure enough, our mindset wasn't right and we didn't play smart. I was disappointed, the players were disappointed and so was the country; I'm still getting over it now, to be honest. When you spend two years of your life on something, it hurts to see it fall apart in front of your face. Still, at least we're not slagging each other off in public."

It was an illuminating point on which to close. Woodward may be the first professional coach in red rose history and he may have failed to deliver in the first professional World Cup, but there is no sign of a P45 winging its way to the family homestead. The English rugby gentry may not know how to win, but no one is more civilised in defeat.

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