Robinson's fall leaves Andrew in the spotlight

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The Independent Online

Andy Robinson's painfully drawn-out demise as England's head coach continued on its course yesterday as the Twickenham hierarchy set about the flint-hearted business of negotiating an acceptable severance package.

While Rob Andrew, the former Grand Slam-winning outside-half who took up a lavishly rewarded role as elite rugby director at the start of the season, spent most of the day participating in what was euphemistically described as a "review" into the depressing events of the autumn international series that cost Robinson his job, alarmed insiders were privately calling for a serious reappraisal of the union's entire professional wing.

Certainly, the chief executive, Francis Baron, was the target of some sharp criticism, both for his handling of the previous coaching upheaval - the Day of the Long Knives last April - and his insistence that a match between injury-plagued England and a stunningly accomplished New Zealand side playing at the peak of their powers was the ideal way to mark the £100m completion of the Twickenham bowl.

There was also some concern over a peculiar division of responsibilities that allowed Andrew to press Robinson for his resignation despite having played an active role in selection for each of the four November Tests.

These critics were even less impressed when they heard that the most successful of the current England coaches, the seven-a-side specialist Mike Friday, had handed in his notice. There was no immediate explanation of his decision, but Friday, who guided the team to three wins and two second places in eight tournaments in finishing runners-up to Fiji in last season's global series, was not thought to have been influenced by the dire situation with the 15-a-side set-up. Yesterday, he was in Dubai preparing his players for this weekend's ranking competition.

If Baron has been weakened by the failures of the last four weeks - his position seems less secure now than at any point since the near meltdown between the RFU and the Premiership clubs at the start of last season - much of the focus has shifted to Andrew and the nature of his future involvement in Test affairs. Having allowed himself to become so intimately involved in choosing who plays where, hardly England's strongest suit of late, he will find it difficult suddenly to start playing the role of independent overseer with the power to hire and fire.

Some strong-minded committee members are far from convinced that the union should spend money it can ill afford on replacing Robinson. They believe Andrew should take over the reins on a formal basis; that he should pick the team and set the parameters for the existing specialist coaches - Brian Ashton, John Wells and Mike Ford - until the end of the 2007 World Cup. This would dramatically up the ante as far as the elite director is concerned, but those who favour this approach consider it the wisest, most cost-effective option.

The silence from Twickenham yesterday was of the deafening variety. Baron, not one to hide his light under a bushel, was conspicuous by his silence; Andrew spent most of the day in his office at Rugby House, declining to comment during his occasional forays outside. There was a strong theory that these two executive figures, the men who effectively called time on Robinson's stewardship of the national team by demanding his resignation, would keep their counsel until after today's scheduled meeting of the RFU management board, which will convene under the chairmanship of Martyn Thomas.

By contrast with the mood in the Robinson household, the Springbok coach, Jake White, was full of the joys as he headed back to South Africa for a meeting of the presidents' council in Cape Town.

Before last weekend's convincing victory over the world champions at Twickenham, White had been in more immediate danger of losing his job than his opposite number. That changed in a flurry of drop goals from Andre Pretorius. Despite a motion of no confidence in his command of the Boks, tabled by the powerful Blue Bulls union, White felt vindicated by his team's first win in London in almost a decade.

"I feel confident of taking this team to the 2007 World Cup," he said before boarding his flight. "I still believe that we are on track and have achieved what we set out to do on this tour. I see being able to address the president's council as a positive step to reinforce our plan for the Springboks."

Meanwhile, there was a glimmer of good news for England ahead of next year's tournament. Richard Hill, one of the finest red rose players of the professional era and a central figure in the successful World Cup campaign in 2003, was thought to be on the brink of starting a senior game for the first time in 18 months. The Saracens flanker has a better than even chance of playing against Wasps in the EDF Energy Cup on Friday night after recovering from reconstructive surgery on his knee.

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