Rugby Union: Woodward's imaginative leadership challenges the necessity of change

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The Independent Online
If England's four-week Test series against the southern hemisphere heavyweights was an exercise in sporting suicide, last weekend's Twickenham finale provided incontrovertible proof of the existence of life after death. While applauding the national team's reincarnation as a trail-blazing band of 21st century total rugby addicts, there may be upheavals ahead.

Paul Grayson's third and equalising penalty nine minutes from the end of Saturday's phenomenal England-New Zealand extravaganza at Twickenham was always likely to bring the house down and sure enough, the roar of acclamation travelled the soundwaves from Richmond to Auckland via Johannesburg, Durban, Sydney and every other rugby town that matters south of the equator. Yet the cheers were almost drowned out by the rush of a force 10 gale emanating from the boardrooms of the 24 Premiership clubs. The sighs of relief would have blown Jonah Lomu clean off his feet.

"Thank God for that," said one high-profile Premiership director of rugby. "We've shown we can live with one of the great All Black sides and managed it with players who have come through the club system, so perhaps we'll hear a bit less about restructuring, second tiers and bloody divisional rugby." Don't bet on it, old bean. The immense progress achieved by Clive Woodward over the undulating course of his first four Tests at the England helm may soon be undermined by yet another outbreak of bloodshed in the corridors of power.

According to the coach himself, England's structure is not so much flawed as laughable. There is, he says, nowhere near enough English talent on regular display in the shop window provided by the clubs. (Quite right too. It is sheer lunacy that 50 per cent of the playing population of the Premiership should be unavailable to the national selectors. In New Zealand, John Hart has the choice of all but half a dozen Super 12 combatants).

What is more, Woodward continues, the strictly limited number of England- qualified players who can guarantee themselves first-team rugby are not performing at a sufficiently high level to enlighten the national selectors as to their Test calibre. Hence the "second tier" theory and while Woodward avoids the phrase "divisional rugby" like the plague - and with good reason, given its wretched history - that is precisely what he is talking about.

So too is Fran Cotton, once a hallowed folk hero of the England front row but now, in his latest guise as vice-chairman of the Rugby Football Union's management board, the professional clubs' No 2 bogeyman. (Bogeyman No 1 is, of course, Cliff Brittle, Cotton's chairman and bosom pal). Their preferred option is to hijack the European scene, either by fielding regional teams in the existing (and hugely successful) Heineken Cup or abandoning the competition altogether in favour of a provincial Super 12 lookalike.

Both possibilities amount to worst-case scenarios for the clubs, whose power and prestige would be fatally diminished. Would Heineken, Allied Dunbar and Carlsberg-Tetley continue to pump money into club competitions if all the meaningful action was taking place on a provincial stage? Certainly not. By the same yardstick, would the supporters leave their winter firesides to watch the South-West tackle a Midi-Pyrenees Select at a threequarters- empty soccer stadium in Bristol? We all know the answer to that one.

To make matters more combustible still, Woodward is now talking about luring any bright young things that might catch his eye in rugby league, slapping a contract in front of them and loaning them out to the clubs for a bit of work experience. The idea has its merits, as anyone who witnessed Gary Connolly's performances for Harlequins last season might testify. But will the clubs play ball as they watch their pre-eminent position in England's rugby landscape being undermined by the Twickenham regionalists? We know the answer to that one, too.

The message of the last four weeks is a profound, yet incredibly simple one: that individuals make things happen, not committees. Woodward himself has demonstrated that a coach with bold, imaginative ideas and the courage to play the game on a broad canvas can equal and, at times, even better the best. You want proof? Look at the back row, where intuitive selection has presented England with their most gifted breakaway unit since Roger Uttley, Tony Neary and John Scott hit the mountain tops almost two decades ago.

Woodward has also given Austin Healey the chance to make a real name for himself as an international wing and when the injury backlog clears, he will offer the same opportunity to Mike Catt at outside centre. As for the alleged shortage of new talent, where the hell did Matt Perry and David Rees spring from? Their selections were so far out of left field that it was impossible to see them coming without the aid of binoculars.

Three years ago, Laurie Mains made All Blacks of Lomu, Josh Kronfeld, Andrew Mehrtens and Glen Osborne at a time when their own families were having difficulty recognising them. Woodward, bolstered by John Mitchell's hard edge and Phil Larder's genius for defensive organisation, has managed something comparable.

Which is more than can be said for the Celtic nations, who look less like second-class citizens than disenfranchised refugees shambling from one soup kitchen to another.

The slaughters inflicted by sundry All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks on the fields of Dublin and Edinburgh confirmed, if confirmation were needed, that neither Ireland nor Scotland could even begin to hope for anything better than a quarter-final place in the 1999 World Cup. Divisional or provincial rugby for England? Ask Richie Dixon and Brian Ashton about it.

Wales were also on the receiving end of an All Black hiding, although adventurous choices in the back row (come in Colin Charvis and Scott Quinnell) and at half-back (come in Arwel Thomas) would give them a puncher's chance of gatecrashing the England-France private party in this season's Five Nations. It is, however, true to say that English rugby has more to fear from its own administrators than anything that may be stirring on the far side of the Severn Bridge. Tread carefully, Clive.