Political shake-up leaves door open for Woodward
Now is a time of darkness in the rugby of old England. Votes of confidence have been issued, rescinded and a head has rolled. There was never anything but faith in John Steele, chief executive officer of the Rugby Football Union, and now he is gone.
Well, it's no darker, no more embarrassing than on many other occasions.
There was, for example, a time of shadow when Clive Woodward was a commoner with a weak hold on his job as coach of England. His team had won three games in 12 matches and he was firmly planted in the camp of Cliff Brittle, whose spell in office will go down as one of Twickenham's zaniest. Given the events of the past two weeks, you will appreciate that we are talking genuinely world-class wacky here. An age of enlightenment it was perhaps not.
Thirteen years on, Brittle is rarely mentioned, but it is striking how other names from that swampy age continue to rise to the surface.
Woodward's, complete with noble prefix, is the most obvious, the man who will be the RFU's performance director or even chief executive officer, now that the post is vacant. Otherwise, all his backers will have toiled on the heap of ridicule for nothing.
Fran Cotton, grand prop of a bygone age, manager of the victorious Lions in 1997 and an arch- conservative in the high politics of rugby, was wheeled out a fortnight ago to say that Steele had to go. It was the blast of a heavyweight, carefully timed and carefully delivered from without, a sign that a faction within had lost faith in their CEO.
Bill Beaumont, cuddly and reassuring, will take up his customary place on the committee that will now, as it did then, deliberate on what to do with another fine mess. A donkey, bowed of back but loyal, will take the load and plod on towards a field less buffeted by mockery.
Rob Andrew, a victim of Steele's brief regime, demoted from director of elite performance to director of operations, will join Beaumont on his steering group. Back in the time of Brittle, Andrew was a free-thinker, still a player at Newcastle Falcons, still able to form a rebel thought or two.
His anthology of radical ideas, the report that bore his name, was yet to be commissioned by Twickenham, yet to be published, yet to be ignored by the governing body. He was eight years away from going over to their dark side. Once there, he lay down in the comfort of the shadows. Now he can devote himself again to good works: truth, reconciliation -- while permitting himself to enjoy perhaps an unavoidable tingle of glee.
The exit of Steele... delicious. The return of the Special One... let's see. That Andrew has not always seen eye to eye with Woodword might yet stir the juices of the mischief-maker he once was.
Jason Leonard and Richard Hill will also be committeemen. Once they were players for Woodword; now they could be his kingmakers. For this is what it is all about. We can set aside the details -- the emails about Woodword's interview on March 17 being cancelled, courtesy notes that remained unread for a dangerously long time by the RFU chairman Martyn Thomas and Beaumont -- because these are merely the pellets of the shot that did for Steele.
He must have known at his own interview, when he was asked about the possibility of working with Woodword, that there were courtiers lobbying for the return of the World Cup-winning coach. When Steele changed the job description, reducing the reach of the performance director towards the full England team, he must have known he was siding with a particular faction, the camp that had not forgiven Woodward for his parting broadside in 2004.
It is worth remembering that before the triumph of 2003, Woodward was under constant scrutiny. To be an ally of Brittle was to make enemies of others. Even in the early 2000s, when he was more secure in his position in the build-up to the World Cup, his constant requests for more money and resources for his team in camp and his observations on the state of the game outside it irritated many in the England game. He was no silent observer of the schism between the RFU and the professional clubs. Not long after enjoying England's finest hour he stormed off, and opinion has been divided ever since.
The mathematics of that division was something John Steele had to calculate carefully, and he quite simply got his sums wrong. He may have been utterly fair-minded in thinking that the RFU really should be looking beyond one candidate for the job of performance director, but fair-mindedness, to be fair, does not really count in these coups.
There is one more character in the saga of the RFU. Martyn Thomas, just after pressing the CEO's crown temporarily to his own head, announced that Judge Jeff Blackett, head of discipline, would be conducting a forensic review of the past nine months. The Judge always comes with a shiver. He is the posse that cannot be shaken off, the marshals forever on the trail of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He is the NKVD officer that stands behind the troops, a warning that however frightful it may be to go over the top and forward, it is even worse to turn tail and run away.
He will find something truly dreadful in his investigations. He always does. Whether he reveals the truth to us depends on the will to air the washing of Twickenham in public. Presumably then, we shall be told very little on the record. But the Judge always gets his man. It may well be done under the cover of darkness but it should be quite a performance for Woodward to direct. Unless, of course, Woodword is the man to be got.
Sunday Indo Sport