James Lawton: With Puma pawmarks all over him, the Robinson story reaches a painful ending

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The Independent Online

Maybe one of the problems is that in any deep sense, professionalism in English rugby union is still not much more than a veneer, a skin graft on the old raucous body that hasn't truly taken hold.

Another could be that the World Cup victory of three years ago was not quite the foundation of a glorious tradition it was generally seen to be, at least certainly not the masterpiece of epoch-making planning its author, Sir Clive Woodward, believed when he promptly began dreaming that another part of his destiny was to walk in the footsteps of Sir Alf Ramsey.

That fantasy died as hard and as swift a death as the one which had England building seamlessly on the triumph in Sydney.

For the moment, though, such theorising must take second place to the most painful realities. It is that Andy Robinson, a fine and inspirational forward in his time, a decent man and a technical coach who made a major contribution to Woodward's place in rugby history, is a time-expired man. His role as coach of England should have ended, by his own hand or with the kind of executive decision-making which is indeed the mark of a professional organisation, with the bankruptcy so evident in defeat by Argentina.

The boos of Twickenham are significant only in that if such a temple of middle-class triumphalism can recognise the scale of England's failure to shape up - not even as world champions but a team who are capable of hinting at anything more than the vaguest preparation - the Robinson story is surely over.

All it lacks now is a moment of decision, recognition that what happened at Twickenham at the weekend was a long time in the making. We are not talking about a nosedive here. We are discussing a long, forlorn retreat from the celebrations which took over the streets of London and finished up in Downing Street three years ago.

Robinson, it needs to be stressed, didn't get a passport awaiting a fresh stamping of glory when he was handed the succession. He inherited a team growing old on its feet and its self-regard. In the national hero, Jonny Wilkinson, he had a broken linchpin whose superb, nerveless winning kick didn't - not if you thought of the future - disguise the fact that he had struggled to impose his authority throughout the tournament. Martin Johnson, the dreadnought captain, was playing out the last of his warrior days.

These facts should not be lost in any rush to bury Andy Robinson. But then did we say rush? It is a term that can have only charitable, rather than professional, implications.

Just as Woodward recognised quickly enough that massive, and inevitably risk-filled rebuilding was required in the wake of Sydney, and quickly picked out a lifeboat, it long ago became equally evident that the task was beyond Robinson's powers.

If the effort against a New Zealand merely limbering up for their blitzkrieg of the French psyche, was at its heart hopelessly without poise or belief, if the denouement against scantily resourced, and prepared, Argentina was shocking in its futility and embarrassment, there could hardly be much surprise.

In Paris last season, England's performance was so wretched it took old rugby types back to the unstructured days before Geoff Cooke got hold of a desperately underachieving force and turned them into World Cup contenders in 1991. It wasn't a pratfall at the Stade de France. It was the direst regression.

Now some say it is right that Robinson was yesterday given a stay of execution - at least until the end of the autumn ordeal against the South Africans. But what really is the point? Can Robinson raise a defence that has not been evident in the numbing of the mind and the spirit that has come with seven straight defeats? The Irish ravaged South Africa 32-15 at Lansdowne Road. It is not a form guide that promises anything more than the Death Row pleas of mitigation which will surely follow some cranking up of an English rugby spirit which has gone missing for so long.

In the defence of Robinson, there has been considerable talk of his problems of preparation, his frustration with the rival demands of Premiership rugby. No doubt there is much room for improvement here but to dwell on this need is to avoid the central issue. Robinson has had plenty of time to make a mark - and a stand. He refused the second option when his coaching staff was swept away while he was left on what remained of the bridge. There, he was joined by Rob Andrew, a director of rugby whose facial expressions during the defeats by the All Blacks and the Pumas might have undermined the confidence of Napoleon long before he was obliged to retreat from Moscow.

With Puma pawmarks all over him, Robinson angrily dismissed the possibility that he would fall on his sword. He made the idea sound impertinent. But, of course, it was precisely the opposite of that. It was, however hard it might have been for a proud man to absorb, a call to reason. Six years ago, Kevin Keegan gave up his command of the England football team after watching a performance that was quite hapless - but no more so than that of England against Argentina. Keegan walked because he had been shown the future - and he saw that he couldn't change it.

When confronted with similar evidence, Andy Robinson has brushed it aside. It is a privilege he may not have for much longer. In a more deeply professional setting, for example the All Black headquarters in Wellington, it would no doubt have been removed some time ago.

Eriksson's revisionism an insult to our intelligence

It is not enough that Sven Goran Eriksson, like some shameless remittance man kissed by the most benign fate, collects £13,000 a day. Now he mocks his benefactors with his version of England's participation in the World Cup.

"I think even today that we could have played the final. We shouldn't lose to Portugal, absolutely not. We started the tournament so-so, we got through and we played better and better," he declares.

Eriksson adds that England were no worse than the finalists - Italy, who beat Germany in arguably the tournament's best match, and France, who produced a near masterpiece against the widely fancied Spain, then swept aside Brazil.

Another revision of history is that taking the virgin soldier Theo Walcott to Germany, and then not giving him a moment's action, was not one of the most irresponsible decisions in the history of international football management but "good for England, good for Theo, good for the future." To all Eriksson's misconceptions we must add another. The World Cup is not about the future. It is not an acclimatisation exercise for boys and Wags. It is about nerve and experience and a proven ability to operate at the highest level of the game.

Five years ago some of us thought Eriksson might just carry those credentials. For that miscalculation we pay and pay and pay. When you think about it, he probably has every reason to insult our intelligence.

'Dessie' brought sunshine to Festival's coldest day

It was quite beautiful at Cheltenham on Sunday. The air was mild and clear and the Malvern hills might have been freshly sculpted as vantage points for some fine racing. Yet no day at the great course is so beguiling, or merely pleasant, that you forget the one of rain and snow and tempest that came on Gold Cup day 17 years ago.

You always weigh the privilege it was to be there when Desert Orchid, the grey gelding that kept ambushing the heart of the nation, ran with such raw and unforgettable courage. With the great trophy of National Hunt racing gathered in, Dessie's jockey Simon Sherwood (below left) fought back his emotion when he declared: "I've never known a horse so brave. He hated every step of the way in the ground and dug as deep as he could possibly go."

He didn't like the going and he had never been so fond of the left-sided course. But then he made it his own, and it was something you remembered again as you drove away in the dusk of last Sunday - the day before he died, aged 27. Death has rarely been such an impostor.

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