Clive Woodward, the coach who revolutionised England's approach to Test rugby and led them to World Cup glory in Australia little more than nine months ago, is about to sever his links with Twickenham after an almighty bust-up over the preparation of the international team. He is ready to hand in his notice today, and while he wants to stay on for the important autumn matches against South Africa and Australia in November, there is a possibility that his seven-year stint with the side will end within the next 24 hours.
England insiders indicated yesterday that Woodward's relations with some of the senior figures in the English game, including the Rugby Football Union's performance director, Chris Spice, and the Premier Rugby chief executive, Howard Thomas, are beyond repair. The point of issue is the new Elite Player Scheme, under which clubs release players for international training days and guaranteed rest periods. Woodward considers the 16 release days and the 32-match seasonal limit to be laughably inadequate.
The coach is scheduled to meet Francis Baron, the RFU's chief executive, at Twickenham today, and there is little prospect of a rapprochement. Although Woodward has a contract taking him through to the 2007 World Cup, he has a 12-month release mechanism. If Woodward gets his way, he will leave the England set-up in November - Andy Robinson, the assistant coach, would lead the team for the Six Nations - and spend his remaining months working with the British and Irish Lions, who tour New Zealand next June. If Baron finds this unacceptable, Woodward would leave the job immediately.
Baron was in uncharacteristically evasive mood yesterday - a clear sign that crisis point had been reached. The RFU issued a meaningless statement, reinforcing the point that Woodward was contracted for another three years but omitting to mention the get-out clause. A press conference is tentatively scheduled for tomorrow.
These developments will astonish and dismay the English rugby public, who celebrated the World Cup victory with glorious abandon last winter. Woodward, awarded a knighthood, was the toast of the sporting nation, along with his captain, Martin Johnson, and a platoon of battle-hardened professionals - Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back and Jason Leonard among them. Of these, only Wilkinson is still with the national team. Johnson, Back and Leonard retired from Test activity in the weeks following the Sydney triumph. Dallaglio, who succeeded Johnson as captain, walked away yesterday.
There is no question of Woodward turning his back on the Lions, with whom he toured twice as a player. He holds them too dear for that. But sources close to the coach said yesterday that he would make a clean break from rugby following next year's tour. Reports yesterday suggested he would be fast-tracked into a role with the England football team, but although Woodward is actively seeking a move into the industry at a suitably junior level, he is said to regard the idea of an immediate high-profile job as ridiculous. However, he has been linked to a possible motivational role at Southampton, a team he has watched in two recent matches in the company of the club chairman, Rupert Lowe.
On the face of it, Woodward has steered well clear of rugby's fractious politics since backing the losing side in the RFU's internecine wars of 1997-98. He praised the Premiership clubs and their contribution to the World Cup victory, and has often credited Baron with playing a decisive role in the modernisation of the English game. But in private he continues to accuse the clubs of wielding excessive power.
Woodward certainly resented the fact that this summer's three-Test tour of New Zealand and Australia was undermined by the chronic fatigue affecting the squad. Dallaglio, who was Woodward's initial choice as captain in 1997, referred to the lamentable state of the players yesterday when explaining his decision to retire at 32. He said: "Physically, mentally and emotionally, it is impossible to play through an entire professional season to the end of May, and then board a plane for Auckland the next day." With this issue brought to a head in ferocious arguments behind closed doors at Twickenham, the Woodward era has entered its final phase. The coach would like his second-in-command, Robinson, to succeed him. But England have lost five of their last six international matches and hard questions are being asked of the entire back-room team.
Rob Andrew, one of England's most-celebrated rugby figures, would be a popular replacement. Nigel Melville, the director of rugby at Gloucester, would also come under consideration, perhaps as part of a double-act with the head coach at Kingsholm, Dean Ryan. Mark Evans, who successfully combines the chief executive and rugby director roles at Harlequins, might also be a candidate - he challenged hard for the Wales job earlier this year - as might the resourceful John Wells of Leicester.
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