Woodward Lions role safe insists Ruddock

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The Independent Online

The widespread notion that administrators from the three Celtic countries have it in for Sir Clive Woodward to such an extent that they would happily strip him of his coaching post with the 2005 British and Irish Lions was rejected out of hand yesterday by none other than Mike Ruddock, the man at the top end of the game in Wales.

"I think Clive definitely has to do the job," he said, 24 hours before the Lions' committee was scheduled to meet in Dublin to discuss the fall-out from Woodward's tempestuous split with England.

Ruddock pointed out that Woodward was renowned for his organisational brilliance, and that his severing of links with Twickenham gave him a clear nine months in which to plot victory in the three-Test series against the All Blacks - the holy grail of rugby in these islands since time immemorial. Any decision to relieve Woodward of his duties as punishment for his outburst about the Rugby Football Union's "toothlessness and apathy" would flabbergast the coaching community and hold the Lions committee up to ridicule.

Bill Beaumont, one substantial quarter of the committee and the Lions tour manager to boot, is a long-standing supporter of Woodward's and has already backed his man in public. If Woodward goes, Beaumont would have to go, too. According to sources close to the action, the chances of the committee voting for political mayhem at this stage are so remote as to be practically off the planet.

Meanwhile, the three southern hemisphere superpowers - Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - have announced plans to expand both the Tri-Nations international series and the Super 12 provincial tournament from 2006 as part of an effort to secure a lucrative new broadcasting deal. The current contract with the Murdoch empire expires after the Lions tour next summer, and the unions are keen to offer more rugby for more money.

Under the latest proposals, the Tri-Nations will go from six matches to nine, which each country playing each other three times. The Super 12 will become the Super 14, with extra places for both Australia and South Africa - all well and good, except that there is no sign of a place in either competition for the wonderfully vibrant but impoverished Pacific Islands teams, who badly need quality fixtures if they are to survive in the professional era.

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