Persecution complexes were sweeping though rugby on both sides of the English-Welsh border during the week. The outbreak has been particularly rampant in England, where Fran Cotton accused several ex-internationals of plotting to replace Clive Woodward, the England manager.
It wasn't quite as hysterical as that in Wales, where you might have thought there was far more reason for civil disturbance, but coach Graham Henry and his staff have felt it necessary to hit back hard at accusations of poor management.
With England having just beaten Australia, and Wales failing woefully against Ireland and Argentina, there would seem little to link the two spats. Apart from the fact that Henry's name creeps into the English argument, the only common denominator is that they were both detonated by former No 10s – Rob Andrew and Jonathan Davies.
Uppity fly-halves have long been among rugby's most treasured and controversial possessions. They tend to be at the creative centre of the play and their urgent and often shrill voices are a constant part of babble both during and after matches. That they are invariably still banging on long after their careers are finished is a tribute to the quality and sting of observations that are very popular in the media world, where an informed opinion is never short of a welcome.
Andrew is director of rugby at Newcastle and writes a newspaper column. Davies, of course, is a television pundit on both union and league and, with a little logistical help from me, writes weekly in these pages. Gareth Davies also writes regularly for us. Stuart Barnes, a contemporary of theirs, is a full-time rugby commentator in print and on television; Barry John has many lively opinions to offer to Wales on Sunday; Neil Jenkins has a column in Wales, as does Phil Bennett. And, although he is liable to pop up all over the place on the field, Austin Healey can be categorised as a fly-half and is probably the biggest stirrer of them all.
Whereas I might draw the freedom-of-speech line at public criticism coming from within a team – as it did with Healey and Matt Dawson on the Lions tour – it is difficult to deny anyone else the right to speak his mind.
That's all Andrew was doing on the morning of England's game against Australia last weekend when he said: "England have been talking a good game for the last three years, talking in terms of high performance, this that and the other. The reality is that they have not delivered on anything." That was more a statement of fact than opinion, and English fans of my acquaintance have been putting it in much stronger terms after the defeat in Ireland.
Indeed, it seems the most caustic and wounding criticism suffered by the English team was in their own dressing-room a few minutes before the Australia match last weekend.
Stand-in captain Neil Back revealed that he had been goading his players all week about their failings in Dublin. He finally let rip just before they went out. "I got stuck into them and made them angry," he said. "I attacked them, questioned their desire and made some strong observations. There was no holding back." England were suitably fired up and went on to win, and surely there could be no more defiant riposte to all the criticism. But Woodward proceeded to demonstrate that magnanimity in victory was an art he has yet to master when he devoted part of his after-match press conference to an attack on Andrew.
Opinions that were welcomingly potent enough to motivate his players when coming from the captain amounted to treachery when uttered in milder form by a former player. "These are people I am supposed to be working with in partnership yet he writes that nonsense. It is totally out of order," said Woodward, adding a sideways swipe at Graham Henry for not handling his players properly on the Lions tour of Australia.
The row hasn't ended there. On Thursday, Fran Cotton, chairman of Club England, threw his conspiracy theory into the ring. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realise that there was something going on," he said. "People like Dewi Morris, Peter Winterbottom, Will Carling, Paul Ackford and Rob Andrew, a whole host of them, have been having a go at Clive. I think it is being driven by Will and Rob." Cotton went on to suggest that Andrew was interested in coaching England. Andrew has denied that, and each of the so-called plotters has reacted to the plotting charge with complete bafflement. Carling called it "unbelievable" in an article on Friday that was a well-presented and rational discussion on the subject and which, I'm glad to say, also defended Henry's alleged contribution to England's Irish hiccup.
Stuart Barnes, who is not named as a critic, also wrote a sound and thoughtful piece on the affair, and the one positive outcome has been a fascinating debate on England's development. Once they abandon their hysteria, perhaps the England management will join in.
Unfortunately, yesterday's story was that Woodward is expecting Andrew to be rebuked when the matter is reported to the next meeting of England Rugby Ltd. The two have spoken in the last couple of days without resolving their differences. Andrew insists that as Newcastle's director of rugby he does have a working relationship with the England manager but he is not an employee of the Rugby Football Union and is entitled to his opinion.
If any country had an excuse for displaying delicate sensibilities it is Wales, whose failings represent a national emergency. It is natural at such times for the management team to huddle together, but the one bit of incoming that wounded them came from Jonathan Davies, who accused Henry of turning the Welsh squad into a pressured bunch who are scared to speak their minds.
"Any voice raised in objection to what they're doing is seen as dissent and viewed with suspicion," said Davies, who is not seeking Henry's scalp but feels he has lost his way and withdrawn into his bunker.
Davies has written here in similar terms for some time and, at least, these are constructive criticisms. Others have attacked with much stronger words, but he seems to be the one they balk at most.
As Woodward himself said the other day when talking about the young Sale outside-half Charlie Hodgson, who made his England debut yesterday, "You can't play international rugby unless the No 10 is running the show." The trouble with brains like that is that they are very difficult to turn off.
One man's meat...
Already, the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea is attracting more media interest than most of us need, and it will get worse next week when the draw for the finals is held in the Korean city of Busan.
But there is one fascinating sideshow in the offing. Reports suggest that the Fifa presidency of Sepp Blatter is to be challenged next year by Dr Chung Moon-Joon, a Korean whose family run Hyundai and who is co-chairman of the World Cup organising committee. They are less than bosom friends and will be even less so after Blatter wrote to Chung demanding that Korean restaurants should take dog off the menu during the tournament.
What a monstrous piece of impudence, and typical of sporting administrators who are not content with ruling their own fiefdoms and want to spread their megalomania over the world at large.
I don't recall Blatter lecturing the French on their eating habits before the last World Cup. Perhaps he doesn't feel that frogs and snails have the same rights as dogs. Come to that, what about the cows, sheep, pigs, horses, ostriches, kangaroos, seals, whales, monkeys and the odd human being who are devoured by the football-playing nations of the world?Reuse content