RUGBY UNION CORRESPONDENT
Rob Andrew and Andy Robinson were agreed on one thing - England's domino-like collapse was down to the ramshackle structure of the professional game. "There is a fundamental problem in the management of elite players," proclaimed the elite rugby director. "Because of our structure we've been left behind and others have leapfrogged ahead in terms of player preparation."
Andrew said England had run out of sticking plaster and were more a suitable case for intensive care. "We need a long-term solution. This is about the next 10 years, not next month."
Robinson, too, was in urgent need of something more substantial than a first-aid kit after he was forced to relinquish what he once considered to be his dream job. Robinson, who presided over 13 defeats in 22 matches, believes he was made a scapegoat. "I hope rather than sacrifice any more England victories and quality coaches that the game admits the structure for developing an elite squad is not working," he said. "If so, my successor can have a sensible platform for success."
Robinson, passionate, patriotic and, as head coach, a loser, was about the only Eng-lishman who did not bel-ieve or read the writing on the wall. He was, as they say, in denial. He said he had the support of the players and coaches, but when push came to shove Robinson was gone.
It was Martyn Thomas who, as chairman of the all-powerful management board of the Rugby Football Union, provided the bullet which Andrew fired at the man he said would lead England into their defence of the World Cup, a prospect which has now become a joke. The meltdown at Twickenham means that England are in no fit state to contest the Six Nations (they will start that campaign in February with home matches against Scotland and Italy) let alone the global showpiece.
"There comes a point when you take a defeat too many," Thomas said. "I feel very sad for Andy. He still believes in himself and he never thought it would come to this. He thought he could turn it around, but he was working under a system that is fatally flawed. A decent guy, he was also incredibly unlucky. But then in this game you make your own luck. We can't ignore the views of the fans."
When Andrew was appointed three months ago to the new super supremo's role he beat Sir Clive Woodward by a whisker. Thomas, it was felt, was in Sir Clive's corner. He is now very much an Andrew fan. "Rob has this image of a fresh-faced young man but it belies an inner steel. He's got a huge job to do, bringing together all the strands of English rugby. He's a cool customer under pressure."
Andrew's review of the disastrous autumn campaign will be put to Club England on Thursday and the ball will be passed to the management board, who meet on 20 December. It is possible England will go into the Six Nations without a replacement for Robinson, which would mean Brian Ashton heading the coaching team. In any case, Andrew is looking not so much for a head coach, more a team manager, which suggests that Robinson's role was always expendable.
A new playing structure, considered more vital than ever, will not be acted upon, if at all, until the new year. Argentina have almost no structure, yet that hasn't stopped them. Thomas, a retired solicitor who farms 500 acres near Carmarthen when he isn't up to his neck in rugby politics, can identify most of the problems, although finding a solution in the RFU's power struggle with the clubs is harder than squaring a vicious circle.
"It is no coincidence that the two major countries who are suffering, England and France, don't have control of their elite players," Thomas said. The RFU want central contracts; the clubs don't. "When things are going right nothing changes, because there's no pressure. We sat on our butts after the World Cup. When Clive Woodward left he was right to be frustrated about the lack of change. Then we started to get beaten and every-one thought, 'Shit, we'd better do something'. We're all to blame, the clubs and the RFU. We've both been bitten."
Thomas has a startling proposition. "What we need is a marriage between the Union and the Premiership. Both sides have to give up long-held views. What New Zealand showed is that a gulf has opened up between themselves and the rest of the world, and England and France are struggling big time. It's easy to criticise the RFU, but there are a host of serious issues and some are out of our hands. That was Andy's frustration.
"Part of Rob's job is to identify and develop young players, but how do we get them into the Premiership instead of gathering splinters on the bench? Between us we're putting £5 million a year into the academies because that's where the Holy Grail lies, but there are so many overseas players here that other countries complain we're ruining their game. Newcastle used to boast that their players were English- qualified, but last month all their new signings were from abroad and there's nothing we can do about it. It's a quick fix.
"There are also massive commercial pressures. Why are there so many games and why is there a league play-off? The Premiership needs revenue. Why don't England get unimpeded access to the players during the Six Nations? The Premiership can't afford to shut up shop for six weeks. Clubs need a minimum of 12,000 fans per game and they in turn want to see the stars, but the acid test is this: what do you remember Martin Johnson for? It's not playing for Leicester, it's lifting the World Cup. You don't relate Jonny Wilkinson to playing for Newcastle. It's his winning drop goal in Sydney. We've been giving the Premiership millions but the chips are down and that will stop. What's happened on the field has hurt everybody. The long-form agreement ends in 2009 but we can't wait that long. We've got to act."
So, what price England for the World Cup? "The players have to come to terms with Ashton's vision, which is alien to our culture of having a steamroller pack. It's been countered. Even Australia have a good front row and New Zealand... Jesus. We've got to be realistic. The odds are against us."
It could be worse. England - on the bright side, they haven't had to pay many win bonuses - bid to host the 2007 World Cup. It's as well they lost out to France.