Mike Tindall, the England centre whose drunken antics during the early stages of the recent World Cup in New Zealand were a significant factor in the collapse of the national team's campaign, was last night reinstated to the elite squad by the Rugby Football Union's outgoing chief executive Martyn Thomas, whose decision will be widely seen as the latest blow struck in Twickenham's increasingly destructive committee-room conflict. Tindall also finds himself £10,000 better off, having had a £25,000 fine cut by two-fifths on appeal.
The Gloucester midfielder and occasional England captain, who earned a World Cup winner's medal in 2003 and also happens to be the newest member of the extended Royal family, found himself plastered all over the newspapers at home and abroad – not to mention every celebrity website – after drinking himself stupid during a players' night out following the opening pool victory over Argentina in September. Security cameras at a Queenstown bar showed him in an advanced state of inebriation, canoodling with a blonde woman who, it was later claimed, was an old friend of Tindall and his wife of a few weeks, Zara Phillips.
On his return from a tournament that was as much a personal failure as a collective one – the manager Martin Johnson dropped him from the team for the quarter-final with France – he was called before Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby, and Karen Vleck, the RFU's company secretary and legal officer, who took a sufficiently dim view of his behaviour to eject him from the Test squad and hit him hard in the pocket. Both these actions were overturned by Thomas, whose long and increasingly autocratic control of union affairs will end on 16 December, when he severs all links with the governing body.
His explanation was extremely pointed in its implied criticism of Andrew, one of his principal rivals in the recent power struggles, and Vleck. "We accept there were mitigating factors, which do not appear to have been taken into account to the extent that they might otherwise have been," Thomas said in announcing his findings, four days after hearing Tindall's appeal.
The CEO said Tindall had not misled Johnson and the rest of the England management in stating that he could not remember exactly where he had been on the night concerned, adding that there was no evidence "of any suggestion of sexual impropriety of any nature with the woman in question". Thomas gave the player credit for showing "deep regret", although he also said Tindall's behaviour had fallen "way below that to be expected of somebody of his calibre and experience".
There is no guarantee Tindall will represent England again, despite his reinstatement. A new elite squad will be named on New Year's Day, possibly by the England Saxons coach Stuart Lancaster with input from Andrew, and by that time, Thomas will be out of rugby office and in no position to defend him further.
Meanwhile, the union's preferred choice as Johnson's successor, the South African coach Nick Mallett, put himself back in contention yesterday after initially ruling himself out of the job. Mallett, in England to coach the southern hemisphere team in this weekend's Help for Heroes charity match, will not be available to take charge for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. "I'd like to spend some time in Cape Town with my children, who I've hardly seen over the last four years, so the timing is not good at the moment," he said – but he did show interest in taking over in the spring, ahead of England's three-Test trip to ... South Africa, of all places.
"You can never say no," he said. "The family situation might have changed in April or May – my wife might be saying it's time for me to get off the sofa and get back into coaching. England is a very big job and it would be a huge honour to do it, but I've made it clear that a head coach should report to the board, not to a director of rugby or performance director.
"I don't actually believe in the performance director's role. Look at previous World Cups: I can't remember any team with a director of rugby being successful. You wouldn't find Graham Henry [the New Zealander who took the All Blacks to their World Cup title last month] or Jake White reporting to a director of rugby. I didn't report to one, and neither did Clive Woodward when he coached England. Layers of management confuse things.
"It's a very contentious period for English rugby: there's a massive off-field job to be done as well as an on-field job, but that doesn't frighten me. My position is that you don't make yourself available for work within a structure you don't like."
As he showed all too clearly during Johnson's ill-starred tenure, Andrew is more than happy to distance himself from England's Test affairs. But would Woodward, who craves a return to Twickenham in an expanded role of the kind Andrew currently performs, be satisfied with a hands-off approach? Now, there's a question.
Lancaster is a candidate to lead the side through the Six Nations on a caretaker basis if no full-time appointment is made before Christmas.