No one is safe as England regroup

The unlikely prospect of a Sevens coach in charge for the Six Nations is edging closer to reality, writes Hugh Godwin in Auckland

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The Independent Online

England might be coached in their defence of the Six Nations' Championship by a Test novice as the embattled Rugby Football Union wait for Martin Johnson either to resign this week or be rejected by the panel who are to review his position of team manager.Ben Ryan, the England Sevens head coach, or one of the coaches currently in charge of the country's age-group teams are in the frame totake temporary charge for the Six Nations that kicks off in February, with a squad for the competition to be named on 1 January.

This extraordinary scenario is easier to understand – though not to explain – when you consider how many ducks (some of them lame) the RFU need to get in a row. Johnson (pictured right)will inform Rob Andrew, the RFU's operations director, in the next week of his intention either to walk away or make himself available beyond the end of his contract on 31 December. In quick or slow order there could be a new head coach – with Johnson's manager role almost certain to be ditched – and a new professional rugby director, in charge of the elite game. A new permanent chief executive of the RFU is due to be appointed in mid-December, but may need to serve up to six months' notice first.

Forever present in the background is Sir Clive Woodward who, unlike Johnson and Andrew (both of whom are back in London), is here in Auckland on holiday from his performance job with the British Olympic Association as a guest of the International Rugby Board to watch the World Cup semi-finals and final.

Woodward remains interested in becoming a wide-ranging director of rugby, but not until the London Olympics are over in August. Conveniently for him, the ructions and reviews swirling around his former Twickenham employers – Woodward walked out of the RFU in August 2004, less than a year after helping England win the Webb Ellis Trophy – could take a few months to settle down.

No one can be assumed to be safe. Martyn Thomas, the RFU's powerful interim chief executive and International Rugby Board (IRB) member, confirmed yesterday that the former England prop Fran Cotton's review of Johnson's three years as manager would continue, despite angry complaints from the Premiership clubs' bosses that it circumvents the Professional Game Board (PGB) review of the past few months.

The PGB review panel includes a representative each from the players' association, Premiership Rugby (PRL), the Championship clubs, PGB (John Spencer of the RFU) – and, oddly to some observers, RobAndrew, who claimed last Sunday he had been appointed to the new RFU role of professional rugby director. A case of 'reviewer, review thyself'?

Thomas's rebuttal of Andrew's claim raised questions over the latter'sfuture. Thomas also suggested a "PD" (performance director) could be "slipped in" to yet another revised structure. The Premiership chairman, Quentin Smith, a corporate mediator in his day job, believes the two most far-reaching reviews could be those by two London law firms into the entire governance of the RFU and whether or not Thomas acted beyond his powers during the dismissal last summer of the RFU chief executive John Steele and the suppression of the Jeff Blackett report into it.

Any disrepute charge for Thomas would play terribly in IRB circles as he prepares to step full-time into the chairmanship of England Rugby 2015. This company is charged with selling 2.8 million tickets to the 48 matches in England four years from now, and its chief executive, Paul Vaughan, was keen on Friday to emphasise England Rugby 2015's distance from the RFU.

With Hugh Robertson taking a direct interest in recent weeks, the Sports Minister's intervention has concentrated minds. A full government inquiry into English rugby at this time would be hugely damaging.

"If I was Martin [Johnson] I would feel incredibly bruised and very let down by a small group of players," Thomas said. "He could turn round and say to us within the next week or so, 'Look, I've thoroughly enjoyed it, interesting experience, good and bad, I'm not staying'. That's fine, but we do need to think, if that happens, what we do. The calendar is so tight – the Six Nations, a summer tour, an autumn international series – that the opportunity to take stock on a coach and find and appoint that person is narrow. It's a 'what if' question. We've got people who are coaching the Sevens highly successfully, if you look at Ben Ryan, we've got coaches [John Fletcher, Rob Hunter, Stuart Lan-caster] dealing with the Under-18s, extremely successfully with the U-20s and Saxons. We're not bereft of the necessary coaching input to manage the Six Nations if it comes to it."

The appointment of the England coach is unarguably in the PGB's remit and what they will surely do is follow the model used by other top countries: of a head coach in charge of the senior side, a performance director in charge of overall playing policy from youth to seniors and a team manager to handle administrative issues.

Woodward is making his first visit to Auckland since he coached the 2005 Lions tour, and although the Test results were poor you would imagine him stamping down harder than Johnson on incidents like the drinking escapades and the wearing of branded mouthguards. Johnson was admirable during the World Cup in the way he chose his public line on the players and stuck to it, but both he and Andrew must be culpable for the performance on and off the field.

Mike Catt, a former England No 12 coaching at London Irish, might fancy bringing his expansive thoughts to bear. So too perhaps two English-speaking coaches with Six Nations experience, John Kirwan and Nick Mallett.

Quentin Smith and his PRL colleague Mark McCafferty are in New Zealand holding meetings with unions including Argentina and franchises such as the Auckland Blues. What with Bill Beaumont hoping to be voted chair of the IRB this Wednesday, the number of Englishmen jockeying for position and power is a little galling while the rest of the world is enjoyingthe action that counts.

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