Andrew risks all as he steps into lions' den

Brutal politics and team in crisis - Twickenham's new head man has problems on every front
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The Independent Online

In choosing Rob Andrew to be their first élite rugby director and haul England out of a morass of decline and despair, the Rugby Football Union handed him a position of power with many facets, not all of them transparent.

Andrew's supposed support from the Premiership clubs may last as long as it takes him to plonk his briefcase on the desk at Twickenham. Premier Rugby and the Professional Rugby Players' Association have welcomed Andrew's appointment, but considering that the alternative was Sir Clive Woodward, this is not surprising. And whether or not the clubs like Andrew today is immaterial. From next month he is an RFU man: a blazer, a Twickenham alickadoo, a poacher turned gamekeeper.

Make no mistake, the RFU are paying Andrew upwards of £250,000 a year to reinforce their buttress against the clubs' often competing demands, not to knock holes in it. "You don't take a post like this unless you realise who your paymaster is," said Francis Baron, the RFU's chief executive. "It's a big and complicated department, and only part of it is to improve the relationships with the clubs." Baron added the rider that "everybody at the RFU is fed up with this bickering with the clubs", and he regards his meeting with all the club owners next Thursday as a step towards thrashing out a new agreement.

But the union's stated aim is to secure primacy of contract with the top 25 to 30 players, so the fur is bound to fly again sooner or later. When Woodward stormed out of Twickenham in 2004 he said that central contracts were "almost impossible to achieve without major revolution", and that it was "a nonsense to think you could manage England players through the clubs' directors of rugby". Yet both things are exactly what Andrew will be asked to do. He will need the negotiating skills of a Henry Kissinger with the charm of a Kim Basinger.

The overarching remit of the job which Andrew takes up on 1 September would, we were told, attract quality candidates. Quality, yes, but not, as it turned out, quantity. As a member of the RFU's four-man interview panel put it, "the apples were falling off the trees before we could pick them".

Nick Mallett, Warren Gatland and Eddie Jones withdrew, and the oft-mentioned Springbok coach Jake White did not reach a final interview, although he is thought still to be circling the England head coach's job, which every one seems convinced will be vacant after the 2007 World Cup. Poor Andy Robinson, of whom more in a moment. The interview panel were left to consider Ian McGeechan of Wasps and formerly Scotland and the Lions, alongside Andrew and Woodward. Soon enough McGeechan got wind he was trailing the English candidates.

So it was Christopher Robert Andrew versus Clive Ronald Woodward: same initials, same notorious antipathy towards the RFU. Andrew's rage at the events of 1999-2000 is legendary. The RFU charged him with formulating the way forward for the English game - the Andrew Plan, no less - and then failed to implement it. Andrew advocated the abolition of automatic relegation - another reason for the clubs to favour him now, although he has had spiteful run-ins with Gloucester, Sale and Leicester down the years. And don't even mention Wasps, whom Andrew ditched to go to Newcastle in 1995.

Meanwhile, what has Woodward been playing at, apart from football at Southampton FC? Why would the one-time head coach want to get back on the England bus? Been there, done that, got the knighthood. Yet it did appear that when the RFU announced the élite rugby director job in late April, as part of their huge post-Six Nations review, they had Woodward in mind. Andrew's initial reply when he was named on a longlist of 22 was "No thanks".

Jonny Wilkinson was just one who suffered in the confusion, giving Woodward a firm endorsement at first then, last week, backing his long-time Newcastle colleague Andrew. "I know Rob for his openness, his flexibility and his willingness to take on board new ideas," said Wilkinson. "He also has a ruthless streak, a desire to strive for the best, ambition and dedication." That ruthless streak saw Newcastle's backs coach Steve Bates and forwards coach Ross Nesdale bite the dust while Andrew stayed on through several lean seasons. Clearly another thing he shares with Woodward is a hunger for power.

In any event, Andrew - at 43 seven years Woodward's junior - won through. And the upshot of all this, with any luck, will be the development of quality England players, noticeably thinner on the ground since the departures of Martin Johnson, Jason Leonard, Neil Back and Matt Dawson, and the injuries to Lawrence Dallaglio, Wilkinson and Richard Hill. The summer's Test defeats in Australia mean England have won a paltry six of 21 matches against top unions since lifting the World Cup in 2003. They have collapsed from first in the world rankings to sixth.

Andrew lost a World Cup final, in 1991, and was routinely vilified for not possessing a fly-half's lighter touches, but he won 71 caps for England and five for the Lions. Public-school educated at Barnard Castle, he graduated from Cambridge as a Master of Arts and became a chartered surveyor. When rugby went full-time, he nurtured Wilkinson and a group of talented backs at Newcastle. Now he has to do the same for every English rugby player over the age of 16. The RFU war chest is substantially larger than Newcastle's, but what price players with basic skills and natural flair? Baron's bottom line is the haunting spectre of empty seats at the expanded 82,000-capacity Twickenham if England carry on losing.

As for Robinson, he could scarcely be more marginalised if he was made to buy a ticket to watch England play. He is the head coach, but he is no longer in charge of selecting the team and he is not even the only forwards coach, with John Wells on the staff.

"I've drawn up the terms of reference for the selection group together with Andy and he is very happy with it," said Baron. "Selection has to be harmonious and, yes, if the head coach wants to do one thing and the others want to do another, you have a problem. The élite rugby director is there as a wise head, a wise counsel." We will see. All Robinson ever wanted was a team manager. Now he's got a new boss, one who ripped into him over the handling of Mathew Tait's debut last year.

It is just under six years since Andrew quit his RFU taskforce in disgust. Back then the union asked him to draw up a blueprint; now he is in charge of digging the foundations, hiring the builders and getting the clubs to grant planning permission. Whatever shape the future of English rugby takes, it will be the house that Rob built.

The Mission: How the new role will work

1 Andrew stands alone at the top of the family tree of élite rugby, with responsibility for "strategy, player release and management and administration for all England representative teams". Reporting to him, on the next tier down, are the England head coach, head of sports science, national academy director, head of referees and general manager.

2 Andrew reports to the RFU chief executive, has an office at Twickenham and won't need a tracksuit in the wardrobe. But he will join the England selection panel of the head coach, Andy Robinson - who loses his casting vote - and the assistant coaches, John Wells, Brian Ashton and Mike Ford. The process of picking the team will be accountable in written form.

3 The description in some quarters of "lord of all he surveys" is flawed. The Premiership clubs still employ the England players. After being given three months to settle in, Andrew will meet the clubs' directors of rugby regularly, to manage jointly élite players.

4 Andrew will oversee the monitoring, mentoring and coaching of potential élite players from a young age, defined by the RFU as the Under-18 group, which makes the 2011 World Cup a more relevant target than France next year.

Hugh Godwin