James Lawton: Nerve and timing desert Andrew in hour of need

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The Independent Online

Rob Andrew dropped a goal on behalf of England in a World Cup game in Cape Town in 1995 that was every bit as heart-stopping as the Jonny Wilkinson strike that won it all eight years later. That was when Andrew, wearing the No 10 shirt in a quarter-final against the reigning champions, Australia, showed brilliant nerve and timing.

Now, as the elite rugby director who is supposed to have his finger on the pulse of the world game and England's interests in return for a salary of around £300,000 a year, he tells us that it will take him more than two months to fill the void left by the inevitable sacking of Andy Robinson.

Whatever happened to the brilliant nerve and timing? It has been submerged in what is risibly described as the professionalism of English rugby.

Professionalism? Robinson died a slow career death as Andrew - the man hired to bring a hard edge of decision-making to the decline that set in almost from the moment the World Cup winners triumphantly paraded through London three years ago - sat behind the doomed coach of champions lurching from one disaster to another before an increasingly dismayed Twickenham audience.

Andrew was employed to provide some swift and practical answers. With the defence of the world title less than a year away he was supposed to be a trouble-shooter perfectly in tune with the needs of an English game riven by club-and-country disputes that made Robinson's task tough if not impossible.

His response, after the inevitable demise of the coach, is to talk about a vital review of the structure of English rugby - and some new definition of the role of the man charged with putting a grotesquely underperforming England back on course. Meanwhile, the team head, rudderless, to the Six Nations tournament.

Now they will have to compete against teams like Ireland and Wales who, after many years under the English heel, have streamlined their operations to the point where priorities are both simple and professional.

Listening to Andrew you might imagine that the fall of Robinson was something of an ambush. It wasn't. It was advertised in nothing less than relentless decline.

Andrew says that there will be no "sticking plaster" solutions. There will be work studies and consultations, which is no substitute for action. What is needed now is somebody to take hold of the England team, which is drawn from the biggest playing population in the world, and create the kind of values applied by the architect of New Zealand's brilliant return to their old status as rugby union's leading force.

Graham Henry, the dour, tough-minded Kiwi who gave back to Wales a sense of its old ability to compete with the best in the world, is the man who leads the All Blacks to next year's World Cup as the most inspiring of favourites. With the backing of the New Zealand rugby union, he has absolute power to shape the national team. He doesn't await reviews. He does what he believes to be most vital to the development of his team.

Robinson's World Cup-winning predecessor, Sir Clive Woodward, achieved some of that power when he took England on to another competitive level. But his blueprint for the future made too many demands on the ill-formed structure of the national game. Now, it is official. England are required to operate in a void of leadership right up to the start of the Six Nations tournament - and to within scarcely six months of the start of the World Cup.

It is an organisational disaster to rank alongside that of the Football Association in the wake of their parting with their head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, who is still earning £13,000 a day in severance pay.

Andy Robinson's reward for failure is no doubt much less spectacular, but that is little consolation for a public which has seen their team disappear from the radar of top flight world rugby.

Rob Andrew insists that he will not take up the baton removed from the hand of Robinson. Instead, he will continue to supervise a "review" of what happened to the team which suddenly galloped off down the high road of sporting history.

Meanwhile Martin Johnson, the captain and inspirational force behind a World Cup win that might have happened in another age, growls about a breakdown in professionalism. Plainly, he wants the job. He should be given it. He knows what is required most immediately. It is not, as Rob Andrew says, the removal of sticking plaster. It is some semblance of leadership.

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