Time for the big decision-makers

Andrew likes to speak his mind - and now he wants quick thinking on and off the field
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The Independent Online

Rob Andrew talked a good game, but then he always did. Wearing the pinstripe suit of a political animal on his return to Twickenham as a mandarin, he didn't criticise anybody by name and still managed to put the Doc Martens into English rugby in general. "The World Cup party was great," he said, "but the hangover lasted much longer than it should have done."

As the Rugby Football Union's first élite director he will have more fingers in more pies than Mr Kipling, and changing the national team is top of his priorities. There were veiled attacks on Sir Clive Woodward and Andy Robinson, and an undisguised warning to the players.

"The year after the World Cup, nothing happened and England went nowhere," Andrew said of Woodward's lost 12 months. As for Robinson, he had made some errors in selection, but as Sir Clive's successor he had been "left holding the baby after 2003". "My first job," he said, "is to help Andy. As head coach he needs and deserves more support. He's had to pick up the damaged pieces."

He stopped short of saying Robinson needs all the help he can get. Since England lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Sydney three years ago they have won six of 21 Tests against major countries, dropping from first to sixth in the rankings.

Less than 12 months to England's defence of the World Cup (it is difficult to reconcile them with the title of world champions) the élite player squad (EPS) should be worrying about their international futures. "Too many people have played for England in the last couple of years, some of whom haven't been good enough," Andrew declared. "There are also too many in the EPS who haven't passed all the tests. We will have to address that.

"Although a lot of players have retired or been injured, others haven't performed very well. People will really have to start sticking their hands up. I haven't seen that over the last couple of years. Some players have been living off their reputations."

Andrew, who pipped Sir Clive to the role, has only just got his feet under the table at Twickenham (he has taken over the office of the former performance director, Chris Spice), but has already identified core weaknesses. "The world game has moved on considerably since 2003 and clearly England haven't. We need a change of direction and we need it pretty quickly.

"New Zealand have emerged as an outstanding rugby-playing team with all-round footballing ability. England have a good defence and a good set-piece and we've always had a pack to win possession, but the question is, what do we do with the ball? Basically we need a shift to more decision-making and skill, putting players into space. In attack we need to be more challenging, and decision-making is the key."

The problem is that many of the decision-makers, or playmakers, in the Premiership are from overseas. When England won the World Cup, the consensus was that they did so on the back of the strength and fitness levels of the Premiership. The impression now is that it produces backs whose first instinct is to run into a brick wall rather than create a window of opportunity.

Andrew, England's blue- eyed stand-off and chief points-gatherer before the emergence of his protégé Jonny Wilkinson, said he was inheriting a "fantastic coaching team": Robinson, Brian Ashton, John Wells and Mike Ford. The five men will have a say in team selection, with Robinson having the last word. Thus, for example, if four of them vote for Wilkinson to be the stand-off and Robinson says he wants to stay with Charlie Hodgson, then Hodgson it is. Given Robinson's track record on selection, this doesn't make sense. The buck is supposed to stop with the élite director.

At the end of April, when he was in charge at Newcastle and Wilkinson made his latest comeback, Andrew said that the No 10 would go to Australia with England over his dead body. Last Thursday, Andrew was saying Wilkinson needed all the rugby he could get: "If Jonny can come through a couple of months unscathed it would be a great bonus for everybody in England." He was, of course, tempting fate, for the following day Wilkinson was helped from the field during Newcastle's match with Worcester. It's a recurring nightmare.

Andrew says he has three or four captains in mind, although last Sunday he was impressed with Martin Corry's display in Leicester's victory over Sale. "Martin was running around like a spring chicken," he said. "What I need is 30 men demanding selection to the England team."

Aside from settling on the best players, his toughest job is to amend the most complex playing structure in existence, a process that needs the co-operation of the 12 clubs and the rest of Europe. Asked to comment on the relationship between the RFU and the clubs, which usually ends in court appearances, he did a neat sidestep. "I think Francis should talk about that."

Francis Baron, the chief executive, said: "We hope to put an end, once and for all, to the incessant bickering that has held England back. We will not be scrambling around to get a top performance for the 2011 World Cup as we are for the 2007 version. We haven't given up on 2007 but we've left ourselves a lot to do. There'll be no moaning, no excuses, but we need a bit of luck."

The Rob-Robinson or Andrew-Andy relationship is, says the supremo, "very strong". "Andy is the head coach, full stop, and as far as I am concerned he will be in the job for the World Cup. We played in the same England team and there are no issues between us. Everything was put behind us two years ago."

Andrew, sniper turned bulletproof vest, has been one of the RFU's loudest critics, and roasted Robinson for the way he treated Newcastle's Mathew Tait and Jamie Noon. At the time Robinson laughed it off. "Rob talks a lot, doesn't he?"

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