Chris Hewett: RFU and Robinson must share the blame for derailing sweet chariot

Few specialist rugby types wanted the All Black game in the first place
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The Independent Online

Andy Robinson cannot claim, and does not claim, that he was not warned. When Sir Clive Woodward marched out of Twickenham for good in the autumn of 2004 with a World Cup winner's medal in one hand and a flamethrower in the other, his parting words could be summarised as follows: "Don't touch it with a bargepole, Andy, because the whole bloody system is a shambles. You won't have a snowball's chance in hell."

Robinson did not take this advice - what ambitious professional would, given a shot at the top job in international rugby? - but if the last two years or so have told him anything, it is that Woodward had a point.

Not the point Woodward set out to make - in essence, that a successful England Test team and a flourishing game at Premiership level were contradictory aspirations, the one inevitably undermining the other. Lest it be forgotten, the red rose army won the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2003 while the élite clubs were playing to record crowds and winning both European competitions. But the subtext of Woodward's valedictory broadside at the great and good of Twickenham was that men of vision were in short supply, that creative energy was at a dangerously low ebb and that there was no prospect of the Rugby Football Union investing the right money in the right places in order to keep the sweet chariot rolling along. This part of the message was bang on the button.

Of course, Robinson wanted more training time with his international players. There has never been a coach who wanted less time - not even Matt Williams of Scotland, who notoriously was granted more time than he knew what to do with. But after a summer of bitchery and bastardy between the RFU and the Premiership clubs, the bluff West Countryman was genuinely encouraged by an agreement over release days that gave him nine days of access ahead of the recent autumn Test series. What he was not encouraged by was the appearance of the All Blacks on a fixture list that should have featured only two names, Argentina and South Africa.

The New Zealand game was a Francis Baron production, and it cost a packet in more ways than one. Determined to give his pet project, the £100m south stand at Twickenham, an opening worthy of the name, the chief executive of the union lured the All Blacks to London with the promise of a seven-figure pay day and spent another £200,000 on an entertainment package that saw a New Labour politician send an imitation rugby ball through the sticks at the push of a button and a girl band mime a couple of songs in front of an audience growing smaller by the chorus. Robinson was betrayed for this? In large part, yes.

Few, if any, specialist rugby types at the RFU wanted the All Black game in the first place. They particularly did not want it on a Sunday afternoon, which ensured a dangerously short six-day turnaround ahead of the match with Argentina, which had a whiff of purest peril about it, despite the perception of a Twickenham crowd wholly ignorant of the quality of the Pumas. (The South Americans lost to France in Paris by a single point last weekend). Television being the paymaster, the union agreed a Sunday kick-off anyway. It made Robinson's task of winning three of the four autumn games far more difficult than it should have been.

None of this is to suggest that his two and a bit seasons in charge of England's international fortunes were error-free. He made serious mistakes in selection, and was equally culpable in fouling up some important substitutions. The Henry Paul affair, the Mathew Tait pantomime, the Olly Barkley fiasco, the bizarre back-row policy ... these were serious errors of judgement and they undermined his authority almost as badly as his Six Nations failures and his inability to coax successive big-match performances from his charges. Robinson never once shirked responsibility for these lapses; he merely said he would do better next time. Sadly for him, there were too many next times where nothing better appeared to happen.

Yet at no stage did he get the rub of the green. If some of this was down to happenstance - every Test-playing nation has injury issues whether or not they have a professional club competition taking place within their borders, but Robinson suffered more than most - the rest of it could be laid at the doors of others. Many felt he should have resigned last April, when so many of his closest coaching colleagues were drummed out of Twickenham, and he may now acknowledge as much. But he did not ask to be relieved of the job of coaching the forward pack, an area of obvious expertise, and he did not seek the appointment of Rob Andrew as élite director of rugby in quite the way it was made. His influence was eroded by both decisions, to the point that he found himself fronting a coaching team that was no longer his to run.

All of which raises some intriguing questions. Will the RFU bother to replace Robinson, given its strenuous efforts to render him redundant? If so, will it appoint a coach, a manager, or a motivational talisman? Martin Johnson, widely touted as a possible contender, is not obviously any of these, although he may become a successful manager in time.

Would Nick Mallett, Eddie Jones or Warren Gatland accept a job working under Andrew, who has never coached or managed at Test level, and alongside a back-room team appointed by someone else? Come to think of it, would Richard Hill or Dean Ryan, the two outstanding English coaches working domestically?

Instead of streamlining the chain of command last April, the union complicated it. No one really knows what role Andrew plays in the Test set-up, just as it is impossible to find anyone who genuinely understands why John Wells was given a job that had been performed with an unprecedented degree of success by Robinson himself. Wells is a top-notch operator, but so too was the man he replaced. The new head coach, if there is to be one, will ask some very searching questions before he agrees to join the not-so-merry throng.

And at the heart of this depressing outbreak of déjà vu is the unsolved matter of who runs English rugby and for what purpose. There has never been greater public interest in the game, which really ought to be good news for the union, except that much of this interest has nothing to do with the England team, who can barely win a match, or with Twickenham, which remains closed to mere members of the public unless they happen to know the chairman of the local equivalent of Old Rubberduckians RFC.

Most of the Premiership clubs are either turning a profit or expect to over the next couple of seasons, and are therefore better placed than ever to tell Baron and his colleagues where to get off while continuing to contract the players. This is the circle Robinson could not square. He should not feel too guilty. No one else can square it, either.

Highs and lows of an embattled coach's reign

* England 32 South Africa 16 (Twickenham, November 2004)

Robinson's first serious match in charge - England had put 70 points on an underpowered Canada the previous weekend - was a triumph created in his own image: tough, uncompromising, physical and ruthless. The Springboks fielded a first-choice side, but were undone by tries from Mark Cueto and Charlie Hodgson.

* England 19 New Zealand 23 (Twickenham, November 2005)

New Zealand won, as they always do these days, but as Graham Henry, their head coach, recently confessed: "We were pretty relieved to get out of it in one piece." Full of passionate intensity up front, England stood toe to toe with the best team in the world and had them in a blind panic before coming up centimetres short.

* England 47 Wales 13 (Twickenham, February 2006)

Coming off the back of the New Zealand performance and a record thrashing of Samoa, the world champions restored some of their moth-eaten reputation by putting six tries past the Welsh in the opening round of the Six Nations. Three of the tight forwards who marmalised the visitors are now among the long-term injured.

* England 19 Australia 21 (Twickenham, 27 November 2004)

Robinson's first defeat, and the first of his major errors. Having scoured the earth for an inside centre blessed with the full range of skills, England gave the gifted Henry Paul his chance. Flabbergastingly, he was substituted after 20-odd minutes.

* Wales 11 England 9 (Cardiff, February 2005)

Mathew Tait day. Robinson was right to pick the youngster - he was, after all, the form outside centre in the Premiership - but wrong to dump him in a hotchpotch of a back division incapable of putting the tactical plan into effect. Robinson then dropped Tait. It was not his greatest moment.

* England 18 Argentina 25 (Twickenham, November 2006)

The game that set a blow-torch burning under the coach's chair. England were mocked and booed at Twickenham after Toby Flood, handed a debut off the bench, threw an interception to Federico Todeschini, who nailed the Pumas' victory. Captain Martin Corry was powerless to prevent it.

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