Mitchell casts doubt on All Blacks trip to England

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The Independent Online

The top brass of the Rugby Football Union may be planning to create space for more nice little earners against the southern hemisphere super-powers by cutting out the riff-raff further down the international pecking order, but the most glamorous super-power of the lot, New Zealand, are not terribly keen on visiting Twickenham. John Mitchell, once England's assistant coach and now the main man behind the All Blacks, wants out of next autumn's tour match in London – a withdrawal that would cost the RFU a packet in lost revenue.

"The end-of-season tour next year should be binned, and I'll certainly be pushing for that," Mitchell said yesterday. "If we are to have any chance of winning the World Cup in 2003, it is absolutely essential that our élite players have three months' rest before getting into their preparation. If I'm not explicit about this, people won't listen to me and hear where I'm coming from."

It is not so much a question of where Mitchell is coming from, as one of where he is reluctant to go: Europe, where the All Blacks are scheduled to play France, Wales and England in a three-hander far more testing than the one they recently completed against Ireland, Scotland and Argentina. Worryingly for the RFU, Mitchell will not be short of allies in Australia and South Africa, both of whom cross the equator with mind-numbing regularity and are beginning to question the value of the International Rugby Board tour schedule.

However, Mitchell will be hard pushed to get his way. As David Rutherford, the chief executive of the NZRFU, pointed out, tour matches cannot be cancelled without the agreement of the other unions involved, and England, positively lusting after a date with the All Blacks on competitive as well as financial grounds, are in no mood to let a money-spinner on this scale slip through their current account.

All the same, Mitchell's sudden intervention is certain to put the tour schedule, already under fierce attack from the RFU for very different reasons, under increased strain. Some influential voices are calling for a globalisation of the season, so that major unions can play each other at times of optimum fitness; some insist the present agreement is economically unsustainable; others claim that naked greed has produced a surfeit of

International rugby and a consequent devaluation of the game at the top level. If nothing else, Mitchell's comments will help bring the issue to a head.

Talking of which, the crack Parisian club Stade Français will have a new head coach next season after agreeing terms with the Hertfordshire-born South African Nick Mallett, whose reward for re-establishing the Springboks as a serious Test act was to fall victim to a particularly bitter outbreak of internal politics last year. Mallett spent nine years coaching in France between 1985 and 1994, and is fluent in the language. What is more, he knows what it is to operate under the kind of pressure certain to be generated by the ultra-ambitious owner of Stade Français, the media magnate Max Guazzini.

"I wanted Mallett to replace Bernard Laporte [who left Stade Français two years ago to coach the French national side] but he was unavailable," said Guazzini. "He knows two cultures: the French culture, and the culture of the southern hemisphere. Apart from his coaching ability, he had a personality that completely suits our club. He loves Paris and has many friends here. Everybody knows he has charisma and natural authority."

John Connelly, the coaching incumbent who moved to France after a long stint in his native Australia with Queensland, always intended to move on at the end of this campaign. He plans to disclose his future plans over the next few days, although he has already distanced himself from rumours linking him with Bath. "There is speculation aboout Bath and I don't know where it's coming from, but it just won't happen," he said.

Meanwhile, the RFU chief executive, Francis Baron, is on sick leave after being attacked on a train as he travelled home to West Sussex on Tuesday night. The two culprits made off with his laptop computer and a number of personal effects.

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