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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 November 2006, 13:08 GMT
England's era of decline

By Phil Gordos

Andy Robinson
Robinson won just nine of his 22 matches in charge of England

There were few dissenters when Andy Robinson was appointed England coach on 15 October 2004. For many, he was the logical choice.

As Sir Clive Woodward's right-hand man, he had played his part in the glorious World Cup triumph and thus knew what it took to win rugby union's most prized trophy.

A former England international flanker with eight caps to his name, he also had the respect of the players.

There were alternatives to the former Bath coach - Warren Gatland, Nick Mallett and Nigel Melville to name but three - but the Rugby Football Union did not seem too inclined to seek them out.

In its view, there was little reason to look past the 40-year-old Robinson.

"Robbo will leave no stone unturned in his quest to make England successful. What I like about him is that he's a winner," said former England captain Bill Beaumont at the time.

The national media were also right behind Robinson.

"The future is bright," insisted the Sunday Mirror. "And in the pugnacious Robinson we have a coach capable of leading us back to the summit."

When England made a flying start to life under Robinson, racking up 12 tries in a crushing 70-0 win over Canada at Twickenham, it seemed the early optimism was justified.

But it proved to be a false dawn.

Against a team they were expected to beat comfortably, the loss of several key figures through retirement and injury was hardly likely to be felt.

It is the apparent inability to form a cohesive strategy and lay down a definite path forward that undermined Robinson as a coach

Other more testing challenges lay in wait, ones which would prove better indicators of Robinson's credibility as a top-flight coach.

Some people felt he had already made one error of judgment.

Prior to the game against Canada, he had axed scrum-half Matt Dawson for putting television commitments before his England duties.

The decision was interpreted as Robinson's way of laying down the law, of leaving no-one in any doubt who was in charge, but it was ill-thought out.

England could not afford to lose another experienced head. Not only that, there were no proven replacements.

Before long, the Wasps star was back in the fold until he, too, decided to hang up his boots at the end of the 2005-6 season.

The Dawson saga proved to be just one of a catalogue of disastrous man-management decisions that punctuated Robinson's reign.

His treatment of Henry Paul was particularly unfair.

Fast-tracked into the England team following his switch from rugby league, the Gloucester centre was left baffled and a little bitter after being hauled off after just 26 minutes of a Test against Australia.

Others were also harshly dealt with.

Newcastle teenager Mathew Tait was discarded after just one game while skipper Martin Corry suffered the indignity of being substituted when England were struggling against Scotland.

To make matters worse, Corry was replaced by Lawrence Dallaglio, the man many felt should be leading the team on the pitch.

More recently, Robinson's decision to replace Charlie Hodgson midway through the defeat by Argentina caused consternation, as did the move to bring on fellow fly-half Toby Flood with just three minutes to go against South Africa on Saturday.

Throw in a number of confusing team selections, like the decision to play number eight Corry at flanker, and Pat Sanderson, a flanker, at number eight, and you had a recipe for disaster.

Charlie Hodgson is substituted against Argentina
Hodgson's substitution against Argentina was much criticised

It is this lack of clarity, this apparent inability to form a cohesive strategy and lay down a definite path forward that undermined Robinson as a coach.

He started with good intentions, attempting to broaden his knowledge and improve the options open to England by seeking out advice from other sports, notably rugby league and American football.

But he lost his focus somewhere along the way. The obsession with rugby league became a little worrying.

Not content with surrounding himself with ex-league coaches and arranging training days with Leeds Rhinos, Robinson was also a keen advocate of the increasing raids on the 13-man code that brought Andy Farrell, Chev Walker and Karl Pryce to union.

But why, when England possesses the largest playing base in world rugby union and, in the RFU, the richest governing body on the planet, did they need to boost their already plentiful ranks with recruits from another sport?

Whatever his motives, England became stagnant as an attacking force under Robinson and soon lost their aura of invincibility.

It is true they were already on the slide when he took over, but their decline gathered pace in the 25 months he was at the helm.

No longer the number one team in the northern hemisphere, let alone the world, they finished this year's Six Nations campaign in fourth place for the second consecutive season and had slipped to seventh in the world rankings by the time of his departure.

It is hard to highlight one positive from Robinson's reign

To confound Robinson's woes, he was never once able to call upon the one man who many believed was the answer to England's problems.

Jonny Wilkinson has yet to pull on an England shirt since kicking the country to World Cup glory on 22 November, 2003.

Robinson, unaware just how badly the Newcastle Falcons fly-half would suffer from injury in the following three years, decided to make him his captain.

In fact, Wilkinson was handed the role before Robinson's appointment was confirmed, such was the faith the RFU had in Woodward's deputy.

But no sooner had the man with the golden boot been given the captaincy that he was forced to give it back, a shoulder problem ending any potential involvement in Robinson's first game at the helm.

Jonny Wilkinson
Wilkinson's injury problems did not help Robinson's cause

Winger Jason Robinson led the team against the Canadians before Corry eventually took possession.

Just how much longer the Leicester forward has it remains to be seen, but it is fair to say that he has been an innocent victim of Robinson's failings as coach.

There are others, too, but Robinson has paid the ultimate price. It is just baffling how and why he lasted as long as he did.

He had already survived one internal review before the end eventually came.

Defiant until the last, his biggest critics felt he should have either been sacked or resigned after this year's Six Nations, some even sooner.

But the clamour for his departure reached a peak after the loss to South Africa on Saturday, England's eighth defeat in nine games.

It is hard to highlight one positive from Robinson's reign.

England lost 13 of the 22 games in which he took charge and have effectively wrecked any chance they may have had of successfully defending their world crown.

Yet all is not lost.

The pool of talent remains as bountiful as ever. It is just going to take time to nurture and develop it.

The 2007 World Cup looks out of England's reach, but now is the time to start planning for 2011.

SEE ALSO
Road to ruin
29 Nov 06 |  English
Guscott tips Andrew to fill void
29 Nov 06 |  Rugby Union
Johnson calls for Robinson exit
19 Nov 06 |  Rugby Union
England 14-25 South Africa
25 Nov 06 |  Rugby Union
Trio sacked in England shake-up
27 Apr 06 |  Internationals
Robinson named new England coach
15 Oct 04 |  Internationals


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