Woodward's exit talks go into overtime

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Sir Clive Woodward, the World Cup-winning coach who has resigned himself to turning his back on England's rugby team less than a year after guiding them to the summit of the international game, was still in the job last night, despite spending nine hours hammering out the fine detail of his departure. The talks, which involved both the Rugby Football Union's chief executive Francis Baron and the chairman Graeme Cattermole, had been expected to be short, sharp and to the point. Instead, they ran into overtime and will resume today.

Sir Clive Woodward, the World Cup-winning coach who has resigned himself to turning his back on England's rugby team less than a year after guiding them to the summit of the international game, was still in the job last night, despite spending nine hours hammering out the fine detail of his departure. The talks, which involved both the Rugby Football Union's chief executive Francis Baron and the chairman Graeme Cattermole, had been expected to be short, sharp and to the point. Instead, they ran into overtime and will resume today.

Woodward, always an early starter, was spotted at the headquarters of the English game more than an hour and a quarter before his morning session with Baron. After a lengthy afternoon break, during which Woodward consulted his legal representatives, the negotiations continued in the presence of Cattermole. There was no formal handing in of notice by Woodward, but the coach himself indicated to waiting reporters that there had been no change of heart on his part.

The chairman of Southampton football club, Rupert Lowe, was widely reported to be keen on luring Woodward to the south coast with the offer of an unspecified role in the round-ball game. Woodward, a keen football follower with a deep-seated attachment to Chelsea, has frequently expressed an interest in applying his managerial and motivational techniques to sports other than rugby, and Lowe, a close friend, seems more than willing to give him the opportunity. The chairman was expected to raise the possibility at a Southampton board meeting today.

Any immediate progress on that front would leave Woodward in something of a quandary, for he is committed to coaching the British and Irish Lions on their tour of New Zealand next summer. To make a decent fist of the job, Woodward would have to apply himself on a full-time basis from early December onwards. The Lions hierarchy would be less than delighted if it turned out he was spending half his week dabbling in Premiership football.

Woodward's preferred option on the England front was to guide the team through the three-match autumn series involving Canada and, rather more alarmingly in light of recent form, South Africa and Australia before passing the reins to his assistant, the former Bath and England flanker Andy Robinson, for the 2005 Six Nations' Championship, thereby freeing him up for a clear run at the Lions. However, he half expected his employers to cut the cord immediately, a move that would have left Robinson in sole charge for the first time at international level. In the event, nothing was agreed.

The root of Woodward's disenchantment, which reached critical mass this week after weeks and months of in-fighting behind the closed doors of Twickenham's committee rooms, is the so-called Elite Player Scheme, under which Premiership rugby clubs release front-line personnel for England training days and monitor mandatory rest periods in return for financial compensation from the union - £30,000 per England squad member, plus another £10,000 per professionally contracted player in the intermediate and junior academies. Woodward was appalled at what he saw as the inadequacies of the agreement, and said so to a number of high-ranking RFU figures. The arguments have been long, bitter and bloody.

Some of Woodward's critics - and there are many, despite a series of glorious achievements last year culminating in the capture of the Webb Ellis Trophy on an epic night in Sydney - privately accuse him of jumping on the EPS issue as a handy means of extricating himself from an England set-up in freefall. The national team have lost five of their last six matches, and few people seriously expect them to beat either the Springboks or the Wallabies in November. The anti-Woodwardites claim he wants out, but also wants to be seen to leave for legitimate reasons.

There again, Woodward retains the support of some very senior figures. Bill Beaumont, the Lions manager and one of England's representatives on the International Rugby Board, is an ally, as is Fran Cotton, the chairman of Club England. Only this week, Lawrence Dallaglio echoed Woodward's concerns about the lack of preparation time built into the EPS by indicating his own fears over the limits imposed by the "treadmill" of professional rugby.

If Dallaglio's retirement from international rugby, a serious body blow to the world champions, was bad news for Twickenham, this public brouhaha with Woodward is infinitely worse. Suddenly, England are rudderless - every bit as rudderless as they were when the former Leicester centre succeeded Jack Rowell as coach in 1997. Baron and his managerial colleagues may have clear ideas on who should replace Woodward, but the likes of Rob Andrew and Nigel Melville are contracted to Premiership clubs. Their recruitment would cost the RFU a pretty penny in compensation.

After talks reached stalemate last night, the RFU abandoned plans to hold a press conference today. It may go ahead tomorrow, and if it does, Woodward, said by colleagues to be in fighting mood, will almost certainly tell it as he sees it. The RFU has had a rough week already. An hour spent on the sharp end of Woodward's tongue would make it considerably rougher.

ENGLAND COACH: FIVE IN THE FRAME

Andy Robinson Clive Woodward's second-in-command. Excellent technician, increasingly shrewd tactical analyst. But not a natural front man.

Rob Andrew Part establishment part radical, Newcastle's director of rugby is gifted and popular. Works closely with Jonny Wilkinson, the favourite to be captain.

Nigel Melville Former England scrum-half who runs Gloucester has a proven track record and coached the national second-string. Confident in his ability.

Mark Evans Joined Harlequins as chief executive, but coached the team. Sharp mind, knows how rugby works on and off the field. An outsider, but talented.

Nick Mallett There would be strong resistance to a foreigner but the former Springbok coach was born in England and is a towering international figure.

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