Woodward backed in battle against critics

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The Independent Online

Euphoria one moment, depression the next. Unexpected shadows closed in on the England Test squad yesterday as Andy Robinson, the head coach, left the team base in Surrey to mourn his father, Ray, who died at the family home in Taunton after a 25-year battle with multiple sclerosis. At the same time, there were dark mutterings of a campaign against Clive Woodward, the team manager, supposedly orchestrated by a group of former internationals disaffected by the red rose army's Grand Slam failure in Dublin last month.

The England hierarchy, not least Woodward, were deeply angered by what they considered to be an organised tirade of criticism during the build-up to last weekend's match with Australia. Leading players were also upset. "If we had lost that game," said one highly-placed member of the coaching staff yesterday, "all hell would have broken loose. When we do lose one, it will definitely go off." This acute sensitivity explains Woodward's uncharacteristically aggressive performance at a press conference following the victory over the Wallabies, when, to use his own words, he "threw a few hand grenades".

Having just beaten the world champions for the second time in less than a year – England have won their last four games against the acknowledged super-powers of the southern hemisphere – it seems a strange time for the negative vibes to start flying. But Woodward was badly stung by criticism in a weekend newspaper from Rob Andrew, the former red rose stand-off and the current director of rugby at Newcastle, and believes a number of Andrew's old England colleagues are making a naked attempt to undermine his regime. The fact that Andrew has been touted as an England manager in waiting adds fuel to the fire.

Woodward's concerns are being taken seriously by the top brass at Twickenham: Francis Baron, the chief executive, and Chris Spice, the performance director, have discussed the issue. Baron is also aware of the views of some members of the Rugby Football Union council, who are unhappy that Woodward reports directly to the chief executive, rather than the Club England committee. He is, however, wholly supportive of his manager: given England's recent record of 12 victories from 13 matches, he would find it difficult to be anything else.

Rugby has always been riven by petty jealousies and small-minded rivalries, and this latest imbroglio seemed particularly trivial in light of Robinson's misfortune. "Our feelings are with Andy," said Neil Back, the Leicester flanker, who will captain England against Romania at Twickenham on Saturday. "We will carry on with our preparation in exactly the same way as usual, because that is what Andy expects of us. We'd like to think he will be with us for the game, but that depends on his family commitments."

Back accepted that a meeting with the impoverished Romanians is a far cry from a Cook Cup contest with Australia – "It's a different challenge completely," he agreed – but went out of his way yesterday to ensure that red rose minds were properly tuned in. "I expect the Romanians to offer a physical threat and to get their set-piece work right," he said. "Therefore, we will have to be direct, to be perfect in terms of our basics and to keep our shape. What do I expect of us? As I was disappointed with our defensive patterns against the Wallabies, I expect a clean sheet this weekend."

Steve Borthwick, the Bath lock, has recovered from the battering he took during last weekend's Premiership victory over London Irish and will join Ben Kay in the second row. Austin Healey of Leicester will also start, even though the scrum-half withdrew from yesterday's training run because of a knee problem.

Meanwhile, the RFU announced a 30 per cent rise in operating profits – from £5.6million to £7.3m – for the last financial year, figures that underlined a sharp improvement in commercial performance since the mid-1990s, when Twickenham contrived to lose £10m in two years despite selling out the stadium on regular occasions. Ticket income shows a 31 per cent increase, which is hardly surprising given that a decent seat for last weekend's Wallaby Test cost £45. At the same time, the union has hoovered up £17m from hospitality and catering revenue compared with £8.5m the previous year.

Changes are on the cards at Wasps, the Premiership's bottom club, where two members of the coaching team, John Landen and the former Canadian international Gareth Rees, are said to be under threat. Senior players want Nigel Melville, the director of rugby, to resume a hands-on coaching role and are pressing Chris Wright, the owner, to spare Melville some of his organisational and commercial duties.


NEW ZEALAND (v Ireland, Lansdowne Road, Dublin, Saturday): L MacDonald; D Howlett, T Umaga, A Mauger, J Lomu; A Mehrtens, B Kelleher; G Feek, A Oliver (capt), G Somerville, C Jack, N Maxwell, R Thorne, R McCaw, S Robertson. Replacements: T Willis, D Hewett, D Waller, M Holah, M Robinson, B Blair, C Ralph.

FRANCE (v Australia, Marseilles, Saturday): C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); A Rougerie, T Marsh (both Montferrand), D Traille (Pau), D Bory (Montferrand); F Michalak (Toulouse), F Galthié (Stade Français, capt); O Magne (Montferrand), P Tabacco (Stade Français), S Betsen (Biarritz), T Privat (Béziers), D Auradou, P De Villiers (both Stade Français), R Ibanez (Castres), J-J Crenca (Agen). Replacements: Y Bru (Toulouse), J-B Poux (Narbonne), L Nallet (Bourgoin), F Ntamack (Colomiers), F Gelez (Agen), N Jeanjean (Toulouse), C Dominici (Stade Français).

AUSTRALIA: M Burke; C Latham, G Bond, N Gray, J Roff; S Larkham, G Gregan (capt); N Stiles, M Foley, B Darwin, J Harrison, D Giffin, O Finnegan, P Waugh, T Kefu. Replacements: B Cannon, R Moore, M Cockbain, G Smith, C Whitaker, E Flatley, B Tune.