Robinson ready for rough ride from RFU

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The Independent Online

Andy Robinson has endured some rough days at Twickenham over the 20 months of his tenure as England's head coach: the Henry Paul fiasco in November 2004 springs immediately to mind, not to mention the painful defeat by Ireland in the final round of Six Nations Championship matches seven weeks ago. Yesterday's proceedings were by some distance the most uncomfortable, however. Given the choice, the former Bath flanker would far rather have prostrated himself before an All Black pack on the rampage than hang around the corridors waiting for the Rugby Football Union's management board to do its worst.

Robinson's cauliflower ears must have been burning, for there was nothing in the way of an easy ride for him as Martyn Thomas, the chairman, began picking his way through the hiring and firing recommendations tabled by the Club England committee - the body charged with picking over the remnants of a third successive Six Nations failure. Although there was little appetite for a change at the top amongst the committee, the board was always likely to be a more hostile proposition.

Even had his own position not been questioned by any of the 12-man gathering - the beleaguered performance director Chris Spice, the 13th board member, was not expected to attend the meeting - Robinson would not have been within a hundred miles of south-west London had he not been ordered to make himself available for questioning, if required. It is a commonplace that loyalty, the value he prizes above all others, is both the coach's strength and his weakness. Robinson is not, and never will be, a sacker. The thought that his close colleagues in the England set-up - the kicking specialist Dave Alred, the backs technician Joe Lydon and, closest of all, the defence strategist Phil Larder - were at serious risk of losing their jobs cut him to the quick.

Senior RFU figures are scheduled to reveal the outcome of the deliberations at Twickenham today, and as a result they insisted the board members sign a confidentiality agreement in respect of yesterday's meeting. Thomas, who beat the former England coach Jack Rowell in a chairmanship election this time last year, and the chief executive Francis Baron were not best pleased by high-level leaks towards the end of the last week, and the disciplinary officer, Jeff Blackett, was even less amused. He has decided to hold an inquiry into the outbreak of blabbermouthing amongst the union's top brass.

Brian Ashton, the head coach at Bath, and Mike Ford, a Larder-style defence specialist currently working with Saracens, were among those under discussion for England preferment. Bath have repeatedly stated that no "formal approach" has been received from the RFU, while Saracens insisted yesterday that they had heard nothing of any offer for Ford's services. Much of the confusion resulted from the union's review process, which rather puts the cart before the horse. The Club England recommendations being just that, the management board first had to agree some principles before acting on the specifics.

None of this stopped an outsider as knowledgeable as Eddie Jones, the former Wallaby coach, expressing an opinion or two. Jones, now in the last fortnight of a wildly successful consultancy stint with Saracens has been working with Ford since arriving in England last month, and has little doubt that the one-time rugby league professional would bring something fresh to the England mix.

"I think he'd do an extremely good job," the Australian said. "What is more, there is no question that England can win next year's World Cup. It will come down to the accuracy of their selection and the development of a cohesive style of play. It's possible to change a hell of a lot in 12 months, so I wouldn't discount them at all. If I was asked to recruit the five best forwards coaches in world rugby, I know where'd I'd come looking. Up here. In Australia, we're aeons behind in that area."

It may be that England end up with two of those forwards coaches - Robinson, an acknowledged expert at managing the grunt-and-groan side of the game, and the former Leicester director of rugby John Wells, who has been mentioned heavily in dispatches at the Club England meetings. Wells, currently working with the national academy, is a compensation-free option for the RFU, unlike Ashton, the hottest tip for promotion.

Meanwhile, Wasps confirmed the signing of Phil Vickery, the World Cup-winning England prop, from Gloucester on a three-year deal. The English champions have struggled on the tight-head side of the scrum since Will Green moved to Leinster last summer. If Vickery, who is recovering from a third major operation on his troublesome back, returns to anything approaching full fitness, he will provide a convincing solution. It is, however, a very big "if".

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