England rocked by Woodward ultimatum

Vital Grand Slam game in Italy overshadowed as coach threatens to quit in the summer unless he secures new deal
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The Independent Online

If nothing else, Italy can be expected to talk a good game at the Stadio Flaminio this afternoon; not only is there something quintessentially Roman about the art of pontification, but the Azzurri have chosen someone by the name of Cicero to anchor their scrum.

Clive Woodward, meanwhile, is playing a game entirely of his own design. On the eve of an historic match - his country's first full international on Italian soil and the penultimate leg of a possible Six Nations Grand Slam - the England coach warned the Twickenham hierarchy against assuming that he would sign a new contract and guide the national side through to the next World Cup in 2003.

"No one should take anything for granted," he said, repeatedly, before his team's final training run, and he went on to inform the Rugby Football Union in the clearest terms that he was by no means certain to join the red rose army on this summer's two-Test tour of South Africa. "I won't be going unless there is a new deal in place," said Woodward, whose current contract expires in August. "The RFU have had since the World Cup last autumn to talk to me. They shouldn't have taken John Mitchell for granted, but they did. Now he's gone. If they'd offered him a big, fat contract in December, he might have stayed."

Woodward, who almost embodies the word "enigmatic", sent out all sorts of conflicting signals yesterday. On the one hand he insisted that he was enjoying the job, describing it as "20 per cent awful, but 80 per cent fantastic". Almost in the same breath he said that he "wanted to go out a winner", appearing to suggest that a Six Nations title and a Grand Slam would, in the absence of the World Cup, be a perfect way of rounding off his reign.

However, his reference to Mitchell, the assistant coach who returns to his native New Zealand next month to take up a player development job with Waikato, was not enigmatic in the least. Woodward clearly feels that the RFU missed a boat the size of the Titanic in not securing Mitchell's services for another term. If truth be told, he is also annoyed at the union's presumptuousness in broadcasting their intention to offer him a renewed three-year deal before bothering to consult with him. Last week, the RFU's chief executive, Francis Baron, was bullish in the extreme about the chances of Woodward staying on. Suddenly, that confidence seems misplaced.

Given Woodward's reluctance to enter into contractual negotiations before the end of the tournament - England play their final game in Scotland a fortnight today - the RFU will have a maximum of eight weeks to tempt their man and hammer out an agreement. If the talks break down, the team will travel to Springbok country with a panel of specialist coaches - Brian Ashton, Phil Larder, Dave Alred - but no overall strategist and no head honcho. Pretoria and Bloemfontein are not easy places to win Test matches at the best of times. If the nightmare scenario comes to pass, those venues will be positively impregnable.

The Stadio Flaminio does not present quite the same challenge as Loftus Versfeld or the Free State Stadium, although England are rarely at their best in unfamiliar surroundings and may take a while to find their feet in the tight 24,000-capacity arena this afternoon. But anything less than a 30-point victory margin will rankle with them, for the Italians are not in the healthiest of nick. Matt Pini, a full-back with eight Wallaby caps and rich experience of the Allied Dunbar Premiership behind him, is missing from the side, as is the inspirational Massimo Giovanelli, whose back-row banditry caused the favourites such heartburn in Huddersfield 16 months ago. Giovanelli has been forced into early retirement after suffering a detached retina during the victory over Scotland last month

"This is pretty daunting, to be honest with you," said the Italian coach, Brad Johnstone, earlier this week. "I thought England played something close to a complete game in beating Wales in the last round of matches, while we are showing all the signs of a side unused to playing at maximum level on a regular basis." Old All Black props tend to be realistic about oval-ball matters. Not even an infinitesimal proportion of the Johnstone salary will be riding on Italy this afternoon.

Contractual issues aside, England are formidably single-minded. They have deliberately shut themselves away in a charmless airport hotel - "We're here on business," explained Woodward, "and I don't want the players even thinking about the beautiful city we're in" - and they fully intend to hit the Azzurri with the kind of all-singing, all-dancing rugby they inflicted on Ireland and Wales.

But perhaps the most striking comment came from Lawrence Dallaglio, or "Lorenzo Dallaglio" as the Italian half of his family like to call him. "The championship always goes down to the wire; we learned that last season, when Wales stopped us winning the Slam in the final few seconds of the final game," he said. "That match will serve as a reminder to this team, just as Murrayfield 1990 served as a reminder to Will Carling's side." The Edinburgh experience of a decade ago inspired Carling and company to consecutive Grand Slams. Dallaglio intends to ensure that history repeats itself.