Sir Clive Woodward's resignation as England coach, a prolonged and ultimately painful process throughout which a traumatised Rugby Football Union appeared to move more slowly than the Vatican, was finally confirmed last night after a second day of severance talks at Twickenham.
Woodward had wanted to stay with his World Cup-winning side for the three-match international series in November before cutting the cord for good, but will instead leave his post immediately.
Andy Robinson, drafted in by Woodward as his second-in-command a little over four years ago, has accepted the role of "acting head coach" and will take charge of the side for the forthcoming matches against South Africa, Australia and Canada. The former Bath flanker has informed the RFU that he wants the job on a full-time basis and will make a formal application in line with union procedures.
Francis Baron, the RFU's chief executive and a public supporter of Woodward's until this sudden breakdown in relations, confessed to his disappointment after the conclusion of talks with the coach's representatives. "I am of course saddened that Clive has decided he wants to move on and meet fresh challenges," Baron said. "He will be a tough act to follow; certainly, I would have liked him to have remained in his role until the end of the 2007 World Cup, as was intended when he signed a new contract prior to the 2003 tournament. The millions of people who follow the England team will share my disappointment, I am sure. But we have to recognise the fact of the matter and move on ourselves."
While Woodward was saying precious little last night, apart from stating that the RFU felt his immediate departure would make for a "smoother transition of coaching and management responsibility" and expressing his support for Robinson, it was clear that he had reached the conclusion some time ago that the 2007 World Cup was way beyond his range.
Close colleagues said he had decided to quit for three reasons: that he did not have the energy or motivation to re-build an England team stripped of an entire generation of world-class players, including Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio; that he felt he had lost a crucial battle with the Premiership clubs over player access for international matches; and that he believed he could not coach both England and the British and Irish Lions, whom he is contracted to lead on a three-Test tour of New Zealand next summer.
Woodward had recently clashed heavily with a number of influential figures in the English game, including the RFU's performance director Chris Spice and the chief executive of Premier Rugby, Howard Thomas. It seems he engaged in one argument too many.
When he signalled his desire to leave his post at the end of the autumn series, the Union spiked his carefully-laid plans by suggesting that he should go straight away. Woodward, frustrated and angered but not wholly surprised by the reaction of his employers, did not even attend yesterday's round of talks, leaving the sombre business in the hands of his legal representatives.
Over the last few days, he has been linked with various posts from part-time motivation specialist to fully-fledged director of football at Southampton Football Club, the chairman of which, Rupert Lowe, is a friend. Woodward is certainly keen to try his luck in the "other" code; he is a regular spectator at Chelsea and has often expressed an interest in applying his off-beat but hugely successful brand of rugby management to other major sports. Few seriously doubt that he will surface in football sooner rather than later.
But when he holds a press conference at Twickenham today, he will be pressed most urgently on his immediate plans in respect of the Lions. Should he accept anything more than a loose and undemanding role with Southampton, the Lions hierarchy will not hesitate to look elsewhere for a coach. "Clive's preparations for the tour thus far have been second to none and we are very happy with the things he has put in place," said the Lions chief executive, John Feehan. "Only by accepting another role that took up the bulk of his time could he affect his position with us."
It beggars belief that Woodward would risk tarnishing his reputation in an admiring rugby community by turning his back on the Lions, with whom he toured twice as a player. A successful tour of All Black country next year would crown his career and rival his achievement in guiding England to a first World Cup triumph.
Nevertheless, the Lions will require some firm answers to some difficult questions today, as will the fast-growing rugby public in these islands. This remarkable, not to say destructive, affair has some miles left in it yet.
He'll always have Sydney Woodward's highs and lows
Highs1 Winning the World Cup in November 2003 - the first northern hemisphere team to do so. His side arrived at the tournament as favourites, struggled to impress in the early stages, but found their form to beat France in the semi-finals, then outplayed Australia in the final in Sydney.
2 Unbeaten tour Down Under in the summer of 2003, including a stirring backs-to-the-wall victory over New Zealand and a brilliant triumph in Australia.
3 Winning the Six Nations Grand Slam in the spring of 2003, the highlight being the 42-6 defeat of Ireland in Dublin.
1 His first World Cup ends in huge disappointment in 1999 as England are knocked out in the quarter-finals thanks to the boot of South Africa's Jannie de Beer.
2 Takes severely-depleted England squad on infamous "Tour to Hell" in 1998, shortly after his appointment. England lost all seven games, including a 76-0 humiliation by the Wallabies.
3 England's players briefly go on strike in 2000 in a pay dispute with the RFU. Woodward says he feels "betrayed and let down".Reuse content