RFU sharpens long knives over Six Nations flop

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The Independent Online

The precise degree of fall-out from England's second successive misfire in the Six Nations Championship is beginning to emerge. In financial terms, the cost is being calculated at a cool £1m. In human terms? This has yet to be decided, but the phrases used by the chairman and chief executive of the Rugby Football Union yesterday - "fourth place is unacceptable", "the issues we're addressing are both serious and complicated", "the problems we face will not be solved by money alone" - indicated that heads are on the block.

Martyn Thomas, who beat the former England manager Jack Rowell to the chairmanship of the union in last year's election, was not prepared to identify where the guillotine might fall during a lengthy, and at times extraordinary, briefing at Twickenham. Instead, he chided the media for indulging itself in a feeding frenzy of the most fanciful kind. "There were times last weekend when I thought Hans Christian Andersen had come back from the dead," he said, pointedly.

If a few fairy tales have been told, it is equally true to suggest that there is dirty work afoot in the forest. Not since the time of Confucius have there been so many Chinese whispers; not since Sven Goran Eriksson confirmed his departure at the end of the World Cup finals have so many names been dropped into so many hats as part of so many agendas. Sir Clive Woodward as performance director; Martin Johnson, Dean Richards and Simon Halliday as England manager ... you name them, they have their supporters - all of them highly influential in Twickenham circles.

While Francis Baron, the chief executive, was stating wearily that "no jobs are being offered because there are no vacancies", Thomas was categorically denying courting Woodward, the head coach of the World Cup-winning team in 2003, as a potential kingmaker while admitting, almost without pausing for breath, that he had indeed spoken with him, both face to face and by electronic means, on a number of occasions stretching back to last spring. They met in Cardiff before the Lions tour of New Zealand, and again in All Black country during that ill-fated trip. Thomas insisted, however, that they had not discussed "a job that does not exist".

Baron defended his chairman's right to engage in conversation with whomsoever he wished. "You can't stop people saying what they want to say," he remarked. "It's a free society."

He then added that he had written to the chairman of Southampton Football Club, Rupert Lowe, expressing his sincere regret for the publicity linking Woodward, whom Lowe employs at considerable cost, with a high-profile return to rugby union. "I do feel ... not embarrassed, but sorry for Clive and his family," Baron concluded. The fact that Woodward is known to be extremely interested in a senior management role at Twickenham did not deflect the chief executive from his course by so much as a millimetre.

If society is free, defeat is anything but. Baron revealed that by losing their last three Six Nations fixtures, England cost the RFU a seven-figure sum. "Apart from anything else, we have plenty of financial incentive to get things back on track," he remarked. "Fifteen per cent of the broadcasting and sponsorship monies are distributed on the basis of meritocracy. The winners get five and a half per cent, fourth place gets you two per cent. In net terms, that's £1m. It is not acceptable, so the review now in process is all-embracing.

"One of the things we're looking at is the interface between the performance department [currently under the stewardship of the Australian Chris Spice] and the England structure, but there are a number of decisions that have to be made, and made correctly - not just with a view to next year's World Cup, but for the long term. People's careers are on the line here, so every individual who legitimately has something to say will be given the opportunity to say it. We will not be rushed into doing a half-baked job. We have to bottom out a wide range of issues because results aren't being delivered."

Those results might be delivered more regularly if the RFU could persuade its fellow European unions to restructure the fixture list, thereby sparing players the debilitating weekly cross-overs between international and club matches. "It's right up there as a priority," agreed Baron, "but it's not going to happen before the next World Cup."

At which point there was some heartening news for Andy Robinson, the England head coach. "If Andy needs more time with his players, we'll try to negotiate it for him," Thomas said. "We'll give him every opportunity to retain the trophy." It sounded like a ringing endorsement of Robinson's position but, the way things are right now, nothing is quite as it seems.

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