Rumours of a return for Woodward hint at wider battles to come

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The Independent Online

The big cheeses of the Rugby Football Union spent the weekend denying to all and sundry that they have approached Sir Clive Woodward to perform an unprecedentedly powerful role at Twickenham that would give him free rein to shape the future of the game in England. But there are approaches and approaches. There may have been no formal discussions - the RFU is not the brightest lamp in the street when it comes to managing a professional sport but it is nowhere near daft enough to take such a liberty with a man under contract elsewhere. There have been talks though, and Martyn Thomas, the RFU chairman, has been the man doing the talking.

A couple of things can be taken as read at this precise point in an increasingly bizarre round of private briefings and public rumour-mongering that began in the wake of England's third and final defeat of the Six Nations campaign nine days ago. Firstly, Woodward is very keen indeed on a return to rugby, although he has no wish to serve as manager or coach of the team he led to the World Cup in 2003. Indeed, he believes Andy Robinson should remain in post as head coach. What he wants is a far-reaching organisational position that would carry with it a prominent seat on the RFU's management board, which Thomas chairs.

Thomas is not alone in carrying a torch for Woodward. Bill Beaumont, last year's Lions manager and one of England's representatives on the International Rugby Board, is said to be arguing long and hard on behalf of the knight of the realm, as is Fran Cotton, perhaps the most influential rugby politician in England despite his self-imposed absence from hands-on administration. But Thomas' role is the most intriguing. England's Premiership clubs, who place the chairman squarely in the enemy camp when it comes to the fierce politics of the game in this country, wonder whether he is courting Woodward as a man with the clout and the will to bring the leading international players under greater, if not complete, RFU control. Woodward was, after all, a dedicated supporter of central contracting when he succeeded Jack Rowell as national coach in 1997.

Secondly, Woodward holds out very little hope of being offered the job he craves - to all intents and purposes the performance director's position now filled by Chris Spice, but with a vast range of additional powers. This is not because he is under contract at Southampton FC; his position there is vulnerable, given the takeover forces at work at St Mary's. It is because he knows that any move to re-appoint him would cause ructions on the management board and provoke another round of the in-fighting that all too regularly damages the credibility of a sport desperate for blue-chip sponsorship deals and zillion-pound broadcasting agreements.

Were Woodward honest with himself, he would also acknowledge that his chances of securing a lasting agreement with the clubs on release of players for international duty - the issue at the very heart of a decade's worth of conflict - are barely greater than those of Spice or Thomas or Francis Baron, the chief executive. Peace will not break out until international fixtures are given a slot of their own, well away from any meaningful club rugby, and that is not in the gift of Woodward, or any other Englishman. It is a cross-border issue, and the three Celtic unions are not currently of a mind to make life easier for the world champions, and probably never will be.

If not Woodward, then who? As what? Two old titans of the Leicester club, Martin Johnson and Dean Richards, are being touted for a stint as England "manager", whatever that means. It is barely conceivable that Robinson, for all his recent travails, would accept any significant diminishing of his own influence on coaching or selection; a man as proud as he is loyal to those around him, he would sooner walk away from the job than subject himself to such humiliation. He could, however, use a strong voice at board level, which is where his old Bath colleague Simon Halliday, a World Cup back in 1991 and now a busy rugby politician when his interests in investment banking allow him the time, might offer his services.

Of course, much of the recent talk is so much wallpaper. It beggars belief that Richards' name should be pushed by Peter Wheeler, the chief executive of Leicester - the club that ditched the great shambling bear of the English game in the most ruthless fashion, despite a run of four consecutive Premiership titles and back-to-back Heineken Cup victories. The fact that Richards is barely on speaking terms with the Leicester hierarchy merely reinforces the Byzantine nature of the reaction to England's misfires on the Six Nations stage.

Given that this is a coaching crisis rather than a managerial one, the RFU should do one thing as a matter of urgency: throw wads of money at the Bath club in return for the services of Brian Ashton, the outstanding attacking strategist in the northern hemisphere. They could have appointed him for free - or at least, without shelling out scores of thousands of pounds in compensation - while he was managing the national academy, but they let him slip away. Ashton would be suitably embarrassed at leaving the Recreation Ground, his spiritual home, within weeks of signing a long-term contract there, but he would not reject England in their hour or need.

Before anything can happen to anyone, however, there is the small matter of the RFU's "review process" to negotiate. Between this Wednesday and 28 April there will be discussion at a monthly management board gathering; another discussion at a quarterly meeting of the union's Club England committee; the submission of a written report by Robinson; the tabling of a Six Nations report complied by Baron; consideration of that report by Club England; an initial management board chinwag over the same document; a final decision-making meeting of the management board; and a presentation of those findings to the full RFU council.

Once all that is out of the way, Woodward may be Minister of Sport with a special brief to run the 2012 Olympics and Robinson may have emigrated to Tibet. Why not? Stranger things have happened in English rugby - and are happening now.