Five days after witnessing the premature demise of his once vaunted pack, who were comprehensively scalped by a pumped-up gang of Scottish Grand Slam gate-crashers in Edinburgh, Clive Woodward is preparing to embark on a little head-hunting expedition of his own. England's top dog has identified his ideal replacement for the New Zealander John Mitchell, the assistant coach who left London for his native Waikato on Wednesday, and intends to tempt him with a lucrative full-time contract and the promise of still greater riches after the 2003 World Cup.
Woodward, who will next week start negotiating a new contract of his own with leading members of the Rugby Football Union hierarchy, is looking for a forwards specialist who is both English and prepared to commit himself whole-heartedly to the red rose cause. The nationality aspect appears to rule out another former All Black, Mike Brewer, who would have been a hugely effective addition to the Twickenham think-tank. Brewer, currently coaching L'Aquila in Italy, is being linked with a possible move to Harlequins.
By the same yardstick, the decision to appoint a full-timer almost certainly knocks Dick Best, Dean Richards, John Wells and Dean Ryan out of the equation. Best, who has publicly distanced himself from a possible return to the international scene under the Woodward regime, is close to agreeing a three-year deal with London Irish; Richards, the team manager at Leicester, has little hands-on coaching experience; Wells, an indispensable sidekick of Richards, has already accepted terms at Welford Road; while Ryan, perhaps the most potent young coach of all, is still playing big-time rugby at Bristol.
All of which leaves Andy Robinson, the Bath coach who worked alongside Woodward at the Recreation Ground in 1997, handily placed to take on the Mitchell role. Robinson is out of contract at the end of the season; more importantly still, he shares his old colleague's new-age vision of a rugby without frontiers, a game where the ball is in play for more than 20 minutes a game and is handled confidently by Nos 1-8, as well as Nos 9-15.
Assuming Robinson is Woodward's target, as the word on the street suggests, it will be down to the coach to coax him away from his spiritual home on the banks of the Avon.
"I have a No 1 choice in my mind, but I can't say more because the person concerned doesn't know," Woodward said yesterday. "There have been no discussions, simply because I was in no position to discuss anything until it became clear that the RFU wanted me to stay on. If my first choice knocks it back, I'll go to my No 2. I'd like to get it sorted sooner rather than later, preferably in time for the tour of South Africa this summer, but there isn't a cut-off point. The important thing is to bring in the right person, because it's a big opportunity we're talking about here."
In characteristically up-front style, Woodward predicted that his new partner would ultimately take over the top job. "I wish I'd had the benefit of starting out in this person's position, rather than having to learn everything on the hoof," he said. "No, I'm not angry that John was allowed to go. He was always going back to New Zealand at some stage; it was not his aim to be No 1 with England, but his passion to be No 1 with the All Blacks. I'm just disappointed there aren't more candidates around. It's no secret that Dick Best was talked about as a possible addition to the coaching team and he is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect, but it didn't materialise."
Meanwhile, rugby's parish-pump politicians were back at each others' throats at Twickenham yesterday as the RFU management board met to confirm their backing for Rob Andrew's blueprint for a structured English season. The long-running power struggle between Francis Baron, the union's chief executive, and Fran Cotton, the chairman of Club England, once again cast a shadow over proceedings, and the situation will be further complicated over the coming weeks if Graham Cattermole, the chairman of finance and a confirmed Cottonite, challenges Brian Baister for the management board chairmanship at this summer's annual meeting. Baister has been accused of undermining Club England by attempting to broker a lasting agreement with the senior professional clubs.
Those clubs are beginning to rattle their sabres in advance of a new and damaging disagreement over competition planning. The RFU, via the Andrew proposals, is offering each club between £1.5m and £2.1m over five years for a 12-team Premiership with end of season play-offs, a midweek British Cup and a minimum of six European matches. Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester owner, has a deal guaranteeing each club £1.5m per year for eight years in an Anglo-Welsh competition, with European cash on top. The whole sorry business is coming to a head.
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