Andy Robinson: Hung out to dry?

The RFU's review of a disastrous Six Nations produced as many unanswered questions as redundancies and made Andy Robinson, the England coach, hostage to his own misfortune
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The Independent Online

Consider this scenario for a moment, and then collapse laughing. Graham Henry, the head coach of the All Blacks, reaches the conclusion that Daniel Carter is playing like a drain and decides to drop him for a big game - next year's World Cup quarter-final in Marseilles, for the sake of argument. Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, the brilliant tacticians who complete the silver-ferned panel known as the Three Wise Men, are in full agreement. At which point, a newly appointed "director of élite rugby" pops his head around the corner of the team room, tells Henry he is talking through his rear end and insists on Carter starting the match. It is the kind of management system that made David Brent possible.

It beggars belief that the head coach of an international sporting team should not be wholly responsible for picking his own side, yet this is the situation slowly developing in respect of the England team. The Rugby Football Union have decided, in their infinite wisdom, that whoever their director might turn out to be - Sir Clive Woodward, Dean Richards, Nick Mallett, Lady Thatcher, Bill Clinton - the job will carry a voice on selection. Extraordinary as it may seem, the bloke in the tracksuit is about to find himself arguing about loose-head props with the man in the business suit, who also happens to be his boss.

"It seems to me the RFU have made a balls of this," said one leading chief executive from the Premiership fraternity on Thursday, after hearing the outcome of the union's Six Nations inquest. "What we are talking about here is a performance director with a slightly grander title, and there are performance directors operating in all sports, in all parts of the world. They do a lot of things; it's a very important role. What they do not do is interfere with the selection of international teams. That's a nonsense. I genuinely struggle to believe the union are suggesting such a thing."

Quite whether Andy Robinson, the England head coach, believes it is a moot point. Robinson is still in position, having dodged the axe that cut away his entire senior back-room team, but he is far from unbloodied. Some see him as broken beyond repair; others are surprised he did not resign after being informed of the findings of the union's review process. The words "Robinson" and "loyalty" are often seen in close proximity and with good reason, but he is also a proud man. There is no guarantee he will not walk away ahead of next year's World Cup in France if he feels his position is being undermined.

The two most powerful figures on the RFU, the chairman, Martyn Thomas, and the chief executive, Francis Baron, spent much of the immediate aftermath of Thursday's sackings insisting Robinson's role was every bit as senior as it had ever been. The more they insisted, the more they tied themselves in knots. At one point, they said Robinson would "lead" selection discussions under the new arrangements; at another, they said merely that the head coach would have a "revised role". Only towards the end of an hour's grilling did Baron concede: "The head coach has to have the final say, because it's his head on the block." But the chief executive also said: "We need checks and balances in selection to avoid errors being made. Andy has put his hand up and admitted to making some mistakes in this area."

Robinson has indeed betrayed a lack of judgement on occasion, both in terms of his starting formations - the positioning of Ben Cohen at full-back for the last Six Nations game with Ireland was spellbindingly flawed; the choice of Jamie Noon ahead of Olly Barkley at inside centre against Wales in 2005 was even worse - and in his use of substitutes. Yet as Woodward, his immediate predecessor, pointed out at every available opportunity: "Only one man can pick a team." Checks and balances equal selection by committee, which never works.

Robinson plans to make his thoughts on the reorganisation known in a briefing at Twickenham next week, and despite being the world's worst actor, he will probably put on the bravest of faces for the public. But he will have to deliver an oration of Shakespearean quality to convince his audience that he is still in charge, rather than been marginalised to the point of invisibility. Widely acknowledged as an outstanding forwards coach - it was his pack that won the World Cup for England, and he has performed two tours of Lions duty in the role - he is now being expected to work with... an outstanding forwards coach, most likely the former Leicester flanker John Wells, who is currently on the Twickenham payroll as a leading figure in the national academy. If Robinson no longer has sole charge either of the forwards or of selection, what can his title now mean?

All of which ups the ante in respect of the forthcoming trip to Australia, where the world champions play Tests in Sydney and Melbourne in June. Had things gone rather better than they did in the early months of the year, Robinson would have experimented boldly in selection and blooded a number of youngsters with a view to next year's jamboree across the Channel. He wanted, for instance, to give the England captain, Martin Corry, a run in the second row during the Six Nations, thereby allowing Lawrence Dallaglio a start or two at No 8. He was prepared to rest most of his senior players for this summer's tour and sacrifice short-term results on the altar of long-term gain.

Results did not, and will not, allow him such luxuries. With the Wallabies also up to their beach-blond eyebrows in flux, England will have to win a Test - or at the very least, take both to the wire - to prevent another outbreak of wailing and gnashing of teeth. The runes do not make pleasant reading. Even if the union negotiators pull together their optimum coaching team - Brian Ashton of Bath, Mike Ford of Saracens andWells - before the end of next week, the remodelled panel will have precious little time to prepare a side capable of beating Australia on their own track.

"I will be fun to see those games unfold," said Eddie Jones, sacked as Wallaby coach last winter after a calamitous run of results, but still good enough to reinvent Saracens - relegation certainties one minute, Heineken Cup candidates the next - in the space of six weeks. "These June and November games are never particularly good guides as to where teams are heading, because one side is always playing at the end of a season, with tired people everywhere. But I'll be very interested to see where England go with their selection, because some crucial decisions have to be made.

"Back home, we have a history of picking young players for the Test side, even though they're far from the finished product. Matt Giteau first played for the Wallabies when he was nowhere near the player he is now. But you need to do something different to be successful at the top level, and there are people in England I'd definitely pick for this tour. Tom Varndell is certainly different - a natural try-scorer. People may be worried about his defence, but when he starts running in tries at Test level, I bet he'll start making his tackles too. It's a confidence thing."

Varndell, the leading scorer in the Premiership, has illuminated Leicester's season. While Robinson has already capped him, against Samoa last November, he now has the chance to run him as a serious World Cup contender rather than a vaguely promising player for the future. Ashton will certainly want him involved, assuming he joins the coaching team. He will push hard for Mathew Tait, the Newcastle centre, and Iain Balshaw, the Leeds full-back, too. If these people suddenly materialise in the England back division, there may yet be something to celebrate.

There again, England could return home with a 2-0 series victory and still struggle to penetrate the shadows of uncertainty. The RFU do not expect to make an early appointment in respect of their élite rugby directorship - a job that might tempt Jones himself, although it would be beneath him to perform so lowly an act as filing an application. As a result, Robinson will not know precisely where he stands until next season.

It is not much of a way to run a sporting business this close to a World Cup year - or at any other time, come to that. If Twickenham were a whelk stall rather than the home of English rugby, it might be in receivership by now.

Australia bound? Three attacking backs to lift the gloom


Brian Ashton was thefull-back's inspiration - perhaps the only coach who ever truly understood him - and with Ashton heavily linked with a return to England, the most exciting runner since Jeremy Guscott may also retrace his steps.

* MATHEW TAIT (Newcastle)

Tait was used and abused by his country last season, and it shredded his confidence and form. But he was a terrific player then and is even more terrific now, thanks to careful handling at Kingston Park. The man most likely to reinvigorate England.

* TOM VARNDELL (Leicester)

His critics say he cannot tackle, which is like taking Van Gogh to task for not cleaning his brushes. The Tigers wing is the best finisher in the country. If Australian coaches think he's good enough, why not play him against Australia?