Clubs and RFU agree on the problem but not the solution

There will be no quick answer to English game's many ills. Hugh Godwin talks to the men hunting for one
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The Independent Online

England's international season began with a vicious valedictory speech from Sir Clive Woodward and ended yesterday with the worst finish in the Six Nations Championship since 1987. There remain more conflicting views on the way ahead than there are seats for disgruntled punters at Twickenham: from the signing of a single player, Andy Farrell, to the whole shooting match of the (un)structured season.

England's international season began with a vicious valedictory speech from Sir Clive Woodward and ended yesterday with the worst finish in the Six Nations Championship since 1987. There remain more conflicting views on the way ahead than there are seats for disgruntled punters at Twickenham: from the signing of a single player, Andy Farrell, to the whole shooting match of the (un)structured season.

Farrell's case alone touches on many of the problems bedevilling the English game. The hugely talented, but currently injured, 29-year-old captain of Wigan and Great Britain rugby league, has been weighing up a transfer to Saracens, Northampton or Leicester. The estimated cost of £1.2m will be part-funded by Farrell's new club, while staying within a salary cap, and part by the Rugby Football Union, whose management board took plenty of persuading by the coach, Andy Robinson, that the £600,000 outlay was worth it.

Consequently, England will want their pound of Farrell's flesh, giving rise to more conflict with clubs already tearing themselves apart over playing during the internationals to maintain spectator loyalty, but doing so without their top drawcards. "It's making a mockery of the Premiership," said Rob Andrew of Newcastle in a week when Jonny Wilkinson's latest injury was described by another crocked England star, Will Greenwood, as "a jab" at the authorities on the crippling effect of player burnout. There's more flies than ointment, and we're not talking No 10s.

With England staring up at Wales and Ireland in the Championship table for the first time in 18 years, the Celtic unions' control of their players has been highlighted. Chris Spice, the RFU's performance director, is broadly in favour of central contracts but says nothing can happen until at least 2008, when the current agreement between the RFU and the clubs expires. In any case, Spice believes clubs are unlikely to surrender enough control to make the system work properly.

"We have to be careful not to think central contracts are the panacea," said Spice. "People equate it with controlling when people play, but I don't think you'll ever get to that point. It's much more complicated than other sports [such as cricket]. The players may not want it. We've got the Zurich Premiership and the Heineken Cup which they want to play in. If we did get down to 15 or 17 games allocated to a club, you would still be unable to tell Newcastle 'you can't play Jonny for two weeks'. Otherwise no club would buy anyone."

What Spice means is "anyone English". But whether or not the clubs sign more foreigners or carry bigger squads, they grudgingly continue to play second fiddle in the mess of a season. In that context, Spice is concentrating on adjustments to the Elite Player Scheme which, together with the national academies, defines England's access to the country's leading talent.

The RFU want the Six Nations blocked off to stop players turning out for clubs on the "blank" weekends. The clubs are mulling it over, but will enforce the 11-week summer rest period, which means England's Lions will start next season late. Club fixtures bolted on to early- or pre-season, such as the Anglo-South African tournament mooted for 2006, would take place without the élite players. "The concept of playing someone different outside Europe is a good one," said Spice, "but the last thing I want to do is load players up with more matches."

England intend to channel what's left of the top players' energies differently next season. Brian Ashton, the academies manager, is to jettison the Intermediate National Academy, leaving between nine and 20 players in the Under-19 Junior National Academy, and around 15 in the Senior version. The appointment of Jon Callard and Leicester's John Wells as senior academy coaches alongside Jim Mallinder has further strengthened a roster underpinned by Damian McGrath, the former rugby league coach, Nigel Redman, Dorian West and Mike Friday.

England's Churchill Cup campaign in Canada in June will be led by Joe Lydon, from the senior set-up, and McGrath. What the RFU hopes will be an expanded A international programme of four or five matches, with Ireland and France among the opposition, will be handled by Ashton and Wells.

Spice said he "wouldn't be surprised" if Wells was called in by Robinson to work with the senior team. Many obser-vers would like Ashton, a master of back play, to do the same. "I've got a very close relationship with Andy Robinson," said Ashton. "We talk about players on a regular basis and that's working with the senior team, in one sense. Whether that develops into a closer role, I don't know. That's Andy's call. If anyone wants me to help out in any way, I'm happy to do it."

With the world champions a chastening sixth in the world rankings, it will be a long wait until England's chance to restore some pride against Australia and New Zealand in November.

"It is hard, but it's sport," said Lydon, "and there could well be more pain and disappointment. It's not that we don't mind losing - I've never met anybody more determined to win than Andy Robinson - but we are on a progression to the 2007 World Cup. We don't want to peak too early."

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