Johnson touted in RFU search for successor

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Andy Robinson, who presided over England's eighth defeat in nine matches on Saturday, has started compiling his report on the world champions' impoverished performances in the four-match autumn series - a document he hopes and prays will convince the Rugby Football Union to keep him on the payroll for another 18 months. Robinson may not even get the chance to table it. Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU, is widely suspected to be pressing for the head coach's immediate dismissal as a direct consequence of the weekend failure against South Africa.

Baron, who exasperated many members of the RFU council by splashing out £200,000 on match-day entertainment when the All Blacks played at the redeveloped Twickenham earlier this month, is deeply concerned by the negative commercial consequences of England's slide down the world rankings and fears he will continue to struggle to balance the books unless he shows swift and decisive leadership. However, Robinson points to an established decision-making process involving both the Club England committee and the union's management board and expects it to be implemented.

In this, he has a large degree of support on Club England, a committee chaired by the former centre John Spencer and including the likes of Geoff Cooke, who successfully coached the national team between 1988 and 1994, and Bill Beaumont, who led the side to a Grand Slam in 1980. The members are deeply concerned that Baron will push the newly appointed elite rugby director, Rob Andrew, into taking unilateral action against Robinson, rather than following the agreed procedure. The committee does not meet again until a week on Thursday.

The situation is complicated by Robinson's imminent departure for Paris, where head coaches from all points of the compass are gathering for a three-day meeting ahead of next year's World Cup. In the immediate aftermath of Saturday's depressing proceedings, he confirmed his plans to travel to France. He also insisted he would not "walk away" from the position he has held since Sir Clive Woodward resigned in 2004.

"I'll stand my ground," he said. "I need time to write what I think, but I'll be honest and up-front in assessing how we need to improve. It will then be down to the management board to take this into account before making the decisions they need to make."

There is no shortage of names in the frame to replace Robinson, whose chances of survival are no better than 20 per cent. Astonishingly, the World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson was being pushed yesterday, despite his complete lack of experience in either coaching or team management. There is some support on Club England for Johnson's former Leicester colleague Dean Richards, now director of rugby at Harlequins and an infinitely more realistic proposition. Some RFU figures want the union to look abroad - the New Zealander Warren Gatland, the South African Nick Mallett and the Australian Eddie Jones are among the usual suspects - while others consider Richard Hill of Bristol and Dean Ryan of Gloucester to be more appropriate targets.

Whichever way the union turns, it will find itself paying through the nose. Gatland, who left Wasps for his native Waikato last year and is considered heir apparent to the All Blacks post, is under contract until after the World Cup; Jones recently took up a Super 14 role with Queensland; Hill has just extended his deal with Bristol until 2010. If the RFU hierarchy shares its chief executive's concerns about money,it has two choices: stick with Robinson, or persuade Andrew to move outside his job description and go hands-on with the Test team.

Until Saturday's game, Andrew was entirely supportive of Robinson continuing through to the World Cup. He defended the head coach's record in the aftermath of the painful capitulation to Argentina, persuading the most important figures at Twickenham - Baron, Spencer and the RFU chairman, Martyn Thomas - that there was no benefit to be gained from another restructuring of the backroom team. According to one insider, "everything depends on whether Rob has changed his view, or been persuaded to change it, as a result of this latest defeat".

Andrew must tread carefully, though. By agreeing to sit on selection with Robinson and the three specialist coaches - John Wells, Brian Ashton and Mike Ford - he is as implicated in the failures of the last four weeks as any of his colleagues. Had Robinson been wholly responsible for the shape of the team and its tactics, his position would have been untenable. While he is not looking terribly good as it is, neither is anyone else.

As things stand, England have one get-together before the start of the 2007 Six Nations Championship - a three-day gathering at Loughborough University beginning on 22 January. Given the strained relations between the union and the top-flight clubs, there is no guarantee of a Premiership-based replacement being appointed in time for that session. A foreign coach might be even more elusive. One way or another, English rugby is up a gum tree.

Next England head coach, betting: 2-1 Martin Johnson; 7-2 Warren Gatland; 5-1 Rob Andrew; 6-1 Nick Mallet; 8-1 Richard Hill, Brian Ashton, Dean Richards; 12-1 Clive Woodward; 20-1 John Wells, Mike Ford.

Friends and foes in the blame game

"It's our silly unforced errors which got them back in the game. I think it's very unfair to put the blame on the coach." Martin Corry, England captain

"The things we are doing wrong are all individual basic errors... That is not Robbo's fault, let's make no bones about it." Andy Goode, England fly-half

"We take representing our country very seriously, and I don't think we lacked effort. We gave away silly penalties." Josh Lewsey, England full-back

"We don't have any combinations that are working. Unfortunately, Andy Robinson has to take responsibility for that." Will Carling, ex-England captain

"An old and tired era bereft of ideas must come to an end - and with it the international career of Andy Robinson." Stuart Barnes, former England fly-half.

"Robinson... and his assistants had four weeks to fashion a game plan and they haven't managed it." Paul Ackford, former England lock.

"What remedy can Robinson provide? I believe he is a good coach but he is far from a good manager." Jonathan Davies, pundit