If ever a rugby man was in need of some good news yesterday, the England head coach, Andy Robinson, fitted the bill. He duly received it. Forty-eight hours before the start of a two-Test series with the Springboks that will make or break him, the Guinness Premiership clubs decided to lift the three-game restriction imposed on players at the start of the autumn internationals, thereby allowing the England selectors to choose from a full hand of personnel next weekend.
Under the agreed limit, Robinson would not have been able to select his captain, Martin Corry, for the second Twickenham meeting with the South Africans. He would not have been able to choose Charlie Hodgson, Ben Cohen or Jamie Noon either, not to mention George Chuter, Julian White, Ben Kay and Pat Sanderson from the pack. In short, England would have gone into the game lighter than a feather in terms of Test experience, and as Robinson cannot afford defeat in either of the forthcoming matches, he could hardly have been relishing the job of picking a side charged with the task of saving his own skin.
This has now changed, possibly because Premier Rugby, the organisation representing the interests of the top-flight professional teams, are keen to deflect the worst of the criticism certain to be aimed at them by those arch-traditionalists who believe the club game should serve the international one, not challenge or undermine it.
"It is important we all get fully behind our England players, and the coaching team, over the coming two weekends," said Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby. "The clubs want to demonstrate their continued support and help in getting England back to winning performances. The original agreement was that players should be limited individually on the number of games played this autumn. However, the situation for England has clearly changed and we want to respond quickly and supportively to those needs."
Yesterday's development made the situation surrounding the former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio particularly intriguing. With Corry and Sanderson out of the running, he might well have been recalled to the squad for the game tomorrow week, even though Robinson is not convinced that his form merits such a promotion. Now that his two back-row rivals are back in the frame, there is no guarantee he will be summoned. A big win over South Africa tomorrow would presumably cement Corry in the captaincy for another 80 minutes.
Yet while Robinson was toasting the timely thaw in club-country relations, another piece of news brought the Twickenham grandees up short. On the face of it, Richard Hill's decision to sign a three-year extension to his contract as director of rugby at Bristol could not be said to affect the England Test team one way or the other. They still have to play the Springboks tomorrow and they still have to win - that or be pilloried as the first red-rose side to lose eight successive matches in more than a century of international activity. Beneath the surface, however, certain members of the England hierarchy may be less than ecstatic at Hill's decision to stay put until 2010.
As Robinson has no way of knowing whether he will still be head coach 10 days from now, Hill has been prominent among those mentioned as a possible successor. Should the Rugby Football Union find itslef in need of his services, it will now have to pay through the nose for them.
Bristol, guided back into the Premiership by Hill at least a year earlier than anticipated and currently contesting top spot with Gloucester, are keen to tie down leading players with improved deals. "We think this process will be a lot easier if those players know Richard is staying too," explained a club spokesman, no doubt mindful of the situation that developed along the road at Bath, where big names re-committed themselves to the club on account of Brian Ashton's presence as director of rugby, only to see Ashton quickly lured away by England.Reuse content