England coaches stall over contracts

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Rob Andrew, the man charged with resurrecting English fortunes at international level after a debilitating catalogue of defeats, resignations, sackings and redundancies, is confident his restructuring of the back-room team - a restructuring of the restructuring, according to the cynics - will be completed ahead of the start of the Six Nations Championship in early February. What he does not know is how many of the existing staff will still be in place when Scotland visit Twickenham on Calcutta Cup day, not least because two of the three specialist coaches currently working with the Test team have yet to sign revised contracts presented to them in recent weeks.

Andrew, who beat Sir Clive Woodward to the job of elite rugby director last summer, is scheduled to table his recommendations at a meeting of the Rugby Football Union's management board a week today. "My thinking is pretty clear in terms of where we should be going on this," the former England outside-half said yesterday. "I'm consulting with people I feel I can trust and I'm working on the basis that the team will be in place ahead of the Six Nations." He would not be pressed on the identity of individuals under consideration, but he used the phrase "head coach" on more than one occasion. This was significant, in that there had been widespread speculation that he intended to appoint a big name in a managerial role, rather than a hands-on coaching one, with Dean Richards, Martin Johnson and the one-time Springbok coach Nick Mallett among those mentioned as possible candidates. Given the uncertainty, the contractual disputes are hardly surprising.

"Two of the three coaches haven't signed," Andrew admitted, without revealing the odd one out among the forwards specialist John Wells, the attack strategist Brian Ashton and the defence technician Mike Ford, all of whom were brought in after the so-called Day of the Long Knives last April. He added that the "couple of things outstanding" were not expected to pose serious issues, but the fact remains that the situation surrounding the ailing world champions is in even greater flux than the most pessimistic observer imagined. As any appointment from outside the existing set-up would be difficult to secure without offering the new man the chance to bring in his own lieutenants, a resolution of this awkward piece of business may be more elusive than Andrew appears to believe.

Francis Baron, the chief executive, has even more on his plate, having been publicly lambasted by both Woodward and Johnson, respectively the coach and captain of the 2003 World Cup-winning team. Speaking at a briefing before yesterday's Varsity match, he said he had no intention of stepping down from his job, or relinquishing any part of his wide-ranging brief. "Since I've been here, the RFU has had seven good years and one lousy year," he said. "I don't like lousy years on my record and I'm determined to address it. We have a massive programme in place." Part of that programme, the rebuilding of Twickenham's south stand at a cost of £100m-plus, led Baron to negotiate one of the most controversial fixtures in English rugby history - last month's meeting with the All Blacks, which so infuriated the Premiership clubs that they brought a High Court action against the union. Andy Robinson, then the national coach, was even more aghast, albeit in private. He feared that an extra match against the best side in the world would undermine his team's chances of getting through the subsequent games against Argentina and South Africa in one piece. It is now a matter of record that his fears were well-founded, and that he lost his job as a result of his side's failures in the autumn programme.

Baron acknowledged that Robinson raised his concerns from the moment the New Zealand game was first mooted. "The fixture was part of the funding plans for the south stand, generating around £5m for the project," he said. "Andy did express his concerns - clearly, he would have preferred not to have had the match. But we had to balance the two imperatives and we decided, unanimously as a management board, that it should go ahead. I understood, and understand, Andy's position, but ultimately, I don't think it impacted on what happened." Robinson might beg to differ.

In light of the desperate events of last month, the RFU is unlikely to foist another unwanted fixture on a head coach, whoever he may turn out to be. One man out of the immediate running is Eddie Jones, the former Wallaby coach now in charge of the Queensland Reds. "I can assure you I'll be coaching the Reds in the Super 14 next year," he said, although he declined to rule himself out of taking up alternative employment at the end of the tournament.