Robinson primed to play role of Paisley to the departed Woodward's Shankly

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The Independent Online

Whatever the outcome of this afternoon's reprise of the 2003 rugby union World Cup final, nobody in English rugby circles is in any doubt that Andy Robinson is the right man to succeed Sir Clive Woodward. Any faint wisps of doubt that may have lingered were thoroughly banished, if it is possible to banish a lingering wisp, by last Saturday's comprehensive defeat of the Springboks.

Whatever the outcome of this afternoon's reprise of the 2003 rugby union World Cup final, nobody in English rugby circles is in any doubt that Andy Robinson is the right man to succeed Sir Clive Woodward. Any faint wisps of doubt that may have lingered were thoroughly banished, if it is possible to banish a lingering wisp, by last Saturday's comprehensive defeat of the Springboks.

Moreover, you don't need an old Secret Seven invisible ink kit, although I'm pleased to say I've got one, to be able to read between the lines: those players who have survived the regime change seem to be more comfortable with Robinson as head coach than they were with Woodward who, for all his visionary, organisational genius, could be just a tad, well, weird.

Before the South Africa match, when a thumping 32-16 victory was still the stuff of fantasy, the retired, but not retiring, Jason Leonard told me that "if anyone can get a big performance out of an England team, it's Robbo".

He meant no disrespect to Woodward, yet when praise is heaped on Sir Clive's successor, the great man is inevitably edged that little bit further towards the dustcart of history.

The former Wallaby David Campese said after England had hammered the Springboks that it was clear the English players had needed a new coach, that despite Woodward's success, "with Clive it was all about Clive". Now, we all know that whenever there is an English parade, Campese can be found nearby energetically performing a rain dance, but perhaps his sneer held a kernel of truth. At any rate, if England defeat Campese's compatriots at Twickenham this afternoon anything like emphatically, Woodward's unexpected resignation as head coach will truly start looking like the right decision for England, as well as for Woodward.

None of which is meant to decry his remarkable achievements. Indeed, I wonder whether there isn't a parallel to be found in the sport Woodward reportedly prefers, the one with the round ball. Might Robinson, in fact, be the Paisley to Woodward's Shankly? It was Bill Shankly who, by force of personality as much as anything else, dragged Liverpool up from the Second Division and turned them into one of the powerhouses of English football.

But it was Bob Paisley who made and kept them pre-eminent.

I think it's fair to say that Paisley could not have done what Shankly did, any more than Shankly could have done what Paisley did. Liverpool fans might question an Evertonian's right to pronounce on such matters, but Mark Lawrenson agrees with me, so there.

"Shanks transformed the club," he told me yesterday. "Bob couldn't have done that. And Shanks never left anything unsaid, whereas we used to call Bob the master of the unfinished sentence. The day after I signed, a few weeks after Liverpool had won the European Cup final in Paris against Real Madrid, he picked me up from the Atlantic Tower Hotel wearing his slippers and a battered old brown cardigan. It was like signing for my grandad. But he was always so sharp. He never missed a thing."

Paisley had taken over a club moulded by Shankly in his own tough, cocksure, wisecracking image. Indeed, Cassell's Book of Sports Quotations still contains more than a page of Shanklyisms, one of which refers to the rumour that he had taken his wife, as a wedding anniversary treat, to watch Rochdale play.

"Of course I didn't take my wife to see Rochdale as an anniversary present," Shankly growled. "It was her birthday. Would I have got married during the football season? And anyway, it wasn't Rochdale. It was Rochdale reserves."

There is no entry for Paisley in Cassell's. But in his quieter and not always comprehensible way, he made wisecracks too. In April 1976, after substitute David Fairclough had scored a spectacular winner in the Merseyside derby, he quietly remarked that were it not for the four-day declaration rule, he would have entered the indefatigable Fairclough in that afternoon's Grand National. In stark contrast to Shankly, however, communication was not Paisley's strength. "He had his own language, which took you about six months to understand," Lawrenson added. "But really, it was more about what he didn't say. If he thought you could play, he'd just leave you to it."

I don't suppose that's true of Robinson, but the point is that the loyal lieutenant, having clocked the general's mistakes as well as his masterstrokes, sometimes ends up more successful in command. So it was with Paisley, and so it yet might be with Robinson, whose formidable challenge is to produce the first team to retain the Webb Ellis Cup. It's a long road to 2007, but a convincing victory today will make it seem just a little straighter.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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