Robbo's exit only a matter of time

Only fears of Ashton-Wells walkout spared coach - and Twickenham are working on that
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The Independent Online

Cloistered in Bisham Abbey and wearing the latest line in an England jersey, the hair shirt, Andy Robinson attempted to defend the indefensible. He had looked again at the England-Argentina game and in Twickenham's fallow field managed to unearth a truffle.

"I was pleased with our defence," the head coach said. "The passion and attitude of the team had been questioned but they put in a passionate performance in the way they def-ended." But in attack they were "disjointed and ineffectual". "Leading 10-3 we shot ourselves in the foot. England need to build a lead to give themselves confid-ence." How low can you get?

It is no disgrace to lose to Argentina, particularly this vintage. The reward for the Pumas, although it may take a bit of time, is a place in an enlarged Tri-Nations. The plan of the International Rugby Board, we can exclusively reveal, is for New Zealand, South Africa and Australia to play Argentina and the Pacific Islanders on an annual basis, a radical development that should benefit the world game.

What was shameful about England's performance last week was that it was devoid of passion or purpose. There was nothing there. Had Martin Corry, the captain, said: "We were only obeying orders and frankly we didn't understand them. What is more I was playing out of position so don't point a finger at me," he would have been out on his cauliflower ear.

What Corry, in fact, said was that Robinson, the head coach, was blameless and it was down to the players, who simply did not perform. Reprieves all round, for the time being. "I didn't think it was right to abandon Martin," Robinson said. "It took a brave man to put his hand up in front of everyone and say the players should take the blame. To then go out and shoot him would have been wrong."

Twickenham's biggest hitters had Robinson lined up in their sights in the two-hour review at Marlow, but decided at the last minute not to pull the trigger.

It is understood that Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, was dissuaded from dismissing Robinson because of a fear the assistant coaches, Brian Ashton and John Wells, would walk out in sympathy. However, once the lawyers are satisfied that in terms of contracts the RFU's position is watertight, it seems only a matter of time before Robinson is asked to stand down.

Yesterday, for the first of two Tests against South Africa - England took a capital W from it and very little else - Corry was back at No 8 yet, in a week when the RFU announced the slump of the national team had cost them £3.6 million, nothing has been done to solve one of the biggest problems bedevilling England, that of leadership.

In his mid-term address, delivered after Robinson had ostensibly been given 160 minutes of rugby to resurrect the Red Rose brand, though probably not his career, Rob Andrew said: "We are looking at the question of leadership and sel-ection and I'm not just talking about the captain.

"We took a step back against Argentina and we can't afford to make mistakes again, but it's important we don't make kneejerk reactions. That was really only the second game for our new coaching staff."

Last summer's tour of Australia didn't count, he said, because England had so many players missing. The injury toll remains frighteningly high. Andrew said that England's display against New Zealand, which resulted in a record defeat, had to be put in context following France's 47-3 demolition by the All Blacks.

"England scored 'four' tries against New Zealand [he was including Jamie Noon's disallowed effort] and had we played the same against Argentina we'd have won. We need to look at how we develop our elite players. We have the most complex and difficult structure and that's something else we need to look at over the next 12 to 18 months."

But that timetable is too late for the World Cup in France, which starts in September. They would never admit it, but England probably suspect they have little or no chance of retaining the Webb Ellis Cup. They have neither the time nor the personnel to do so. Put it this way: how many of England's elite squad would get into the All Blacks team? The answer is not one. In Australia three years ago, when England won the World Cup, the reverse was true.

As the elite director of rugby, Andrew cannot afford to allow the situation to drift beyond the autumn and into the Six Nations. The longer it goes on the more culpable he becomes.

The commercial pressures are also building. When he took on the job he said England had wasted a year following the success in Sydney three Novembers ago, and nothing was done after they finished fourth in the 2005 Six Nations. It was only when they were fourth again that the coaching team were sacrificed, although Robinson remained at the altar.

Andrew says he has no desire to take over as head coach, which begs a question: if Robinson jumps or is pushed, who succeeds him?

There are few English contenders, especially as Richard Hill has just signed an extension to his contract at Bristol to 2010. A strong front runner would be Nick Mallett, who had an excellent record when he was in charge of South Africa. A graduate of Oxford University (Andrew is a Cambridge man), Mallett not only has experience of dealing with the national rugby politics of his home country but has also worked in France where, like England, the game is driven by the clubs. He is identified not only as a successful coach but a suitable go-between in the RFU's relationship with the clubs.

This has been a wretched time for England, their first crash in the professional era resulting in a dive in profits of 30 per cent just as the capacity of Twicken-ham is increased to 82,000. The RFU wanted their patron, the Queen, to open the South Stand but were told that she couldn't be expected to tiptoe over what is still a building site.