Rob An­drew: ‘I’m not be­ing alarmist … the game is get­ting worse, not bet­ter’

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Paul Rees

Rob An­drew’s part­ing shot to rugby af­ter spend­ing 30 years in the game as a player, di­rec­tor of rugby and ad­min­is­tra­tor was a book on the game in Eng­land in the pro­fes­sional era that fi­nally put his side of the tu­mul­tuous events at Twick­en­ham that cul­mi­nated in a con­fla­gra­tion on and off the field in 2011. As he grap­ples with cricket’s chang­ing land­scape in his lat­est role as Sus­sex’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, he be­lieves the sport in which he spent most of his life has reached a crit­i­cal junc­ture.

Grow­ing con­cerns about in­juries and the length of the sea­son have prompted play­ers to con­sider go­ing on strike, the ex­o­dus of play­ers from the south­ern hemi­sphere to Europe shows no sign of slow­ing down and, af­ter 22 years of pro­fes­sion­al­ism, clubs are no nearer to sus­tained prof­itabil­ity than they were when the am­a­teur dam burst and mil­lion­aire own­ers waded in.

“In some ways the game has stayed the same rather than moved for­ward,” says An­drew, who af­ter 10 years at New­cas­tle joined the Rugby Football Union as a di­rec­tor whose job ti­tle seemed to change fre­quently. “No one has the dom­i­nant po­si­tion over is­sues like con­trol of play­ers, the con­flict be­tween club and coun­try and where the money goes. It is a con­stant bat­tle for com­pro­mise and the edge.

“The fear at the mo­ment is that it has been pushed to the limit where ei­ther through in­juries or the length of the sea­son we are not far off the play­ers down­ing tools. That is a se­ri­ous pos­si­bil­ity. The game is get­ting worse, not bet­ter, and it can­not con­tinue like that be­cause the im­pact on the sport will be enor­mous. We all hear about par­ents who do not want their kids to play rugby or the kids them­selves say they don’t want to be forced to play rugby.

“Go down that road for long enough and you dam­age the game. I am not be­ing alarmist: I don’t want it to hap­pen. I just don’t know what the an­swer is. Play­ers are now in­cred­i­ble ath­letes and go at a hell of a pace at each other with a lot of force. The in­ten­sity never drops and what is not fo­cused on enough is that it is not a 15-man game, which it was years ago, when all 15 stayed on the field and there was a bit of room in the last 20 min­utes be­cause ev­ery­one was knack­ered. Now, it is a 23-man game and at the tired point more than half a team comes on fresh so there is no drop in in­ten­sity level. That is not what rugby was de­signed for.”

Dur­ing An­drew’s years at New­cas­tle the English game was pock­marked by con­tin­ual dis­putes be­tween the Premier­ship clubs and Twick­en­ham over con­trol of play­ers and money. One of the rea­sons he was hired by the RFU was to bro­ker an agree­ment be­tween the two. It re­sulted in the elite player deal that started in 2008 and was re­newed eight years later. Re­la­tions be­tween the two par­ties be­came more har­mo­nious but, as has been seen this year in de­bates over the length of the Six Na­tions, Lions tours and the do­mes­tic sea­son, it seems to be more truce than treaty.

“There is an un­easy part­ner­ship in Eng­land and France be­tween the club and coun­try model,” says An­drew. “Club rugby is strong in both coun­tries and it is a long game. Union want to pro­tect the in­ter­na­tional game and their po­si­tion in it while some own­ers would like clubs to be­come more dom­i­nant, as they are in football. The bal­ance of power will move de­pend­ing on cir­cum­stances: Test rugby needs to re­main strong but there are some coun­tries strug­gling play­ing wise and fi­nan­cially, vic­tims of mar­ket forces.

“It can­not be good for the game long term that there are so many play­ers from the south­ern hemi­sphere earn­ing their liv­ings in Europe. It stokes wage in­fla­tion there and has had an ef­fect on the qual­ity in Su­per Rugby. The av­er­age salary in the Premier­ship based on the salary cap is around £200,000; many play­ers will be on £300,000-500,000. I would not deny them try­ing to eke out as much as they can: we pushed things as play­ers in my era but it does not make any sense to me when clubs have had all this new money but the own­ers are still bleat­ing that it is cost­ing them £2m a year or more. Whose fault is that?

“It is a prob­lem and, like in­juries, it is not get­ting any bet­ter. There are fi­nan­cial stresses on the sys­tem and a mas­sive drain to Eng­land and France and it will have a detri­men­tal ef­fect on both sides of the equa­tion. Shar­ing tier one rev­enue has been dis­cussed many times but it is com­pli­cated to de­liver some­thing that works for ev­ery­body.

“I am not sure there is a de­cline in in­ter­est in in­ter­na­tional rugby but it is a risk and, if the game ceases to be a ma­jor sport in South Africa or Aus­tralia, for what­ever rea­son, the whole game would feel it. Noth­ing is cast in stone and the chal­lenge for all sports ex­cept football is not so much to grow as to halt the de­cline.”

An­drew’s stint at the RFU cov­ered three World Cups and four head coaches of Eng­land – Andy Robin­son, Brian Ash­ton, Martin John­son and Stu­art Lan­caster – all of whom were ei­ther pushed out or took the hint and jumped. An­drew was tasked in 2008 with sound­ing out John­son, who at that point had not done any coach­ing since re­tir­ing as a player af­ter the 2003 World Cup, while Ash­ton was in po­si­tion and un­aware that his job was be­ing touted to some­one else.

“I al­lowed my­self to be put in a po­si­tion with the Martin John­son ap­point­ment,” says An­drew. “At that time there was a lot of per­sonal agenda stuff go­ing on at Twick­en­ham and it was not very pleas­ant. Part of the rea­son for do­ing the book was to put my side of the story. There was a point when I stood up to cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als and in one case there was a him or me mo­ment. I am a stub­born York­shire­man: the more some­one tries to un­der­mine me, the more stub­born I be­come.”

Some at Twick­en­ham thought An­drew’s po­si­tion should have been filled by Sir Clive Wood­ward and the years up to 2011 saw sus­tained at­tempts to cre­ate a po­si­tion for the 2003 World Cup-win­ning coach un­til ev­ery­thing im­ploded. “Some of it was driven from within the RFU and some in the me­dia,” says An­drew. “I had it as a player with my ri­valry with Stu­art Barnes for the Eng­land out­side-half po­si­tion.

“I thought I was do­ing a pretty good job in the wider di­rec­tion of English rugby: you could tell in 2011 that the cur­rent Eng­land team was go­ing to hap­pen be­cause of the qual­ity of the un­der-20 side then. We got the sys­tem right from the bot­tom up. I got an enor­mous amount of sup­port from the peo­ple I worked with, in­side and out­side the RFU. They were the ones who re­ally mat­tered.

“In the end it was high-level sport­ing pol­i­tics at its worst, the last gasp of the am­a­teurs. It all came crash­ing down to end poor gov­er­nance. It was ugly at the time but the whole thing is dif­fer­ent now. I left [in 2016] be­cause I fan­cied a change. I had a de­mand­ing decade at the RFU and, de­spite what was said,, it was never in my job de­scrip­tion that I man­aged the Eng­land team. It was a broad, strate­gic role span­ning the pro­fes­sional game in Eng­land and we are now the dom­i­nant force in the world at ju­nior level.”

In his book, Rugby: The Game of My Life,An­drew takes is­sue with John­son’s suc­ces­sor, Stu­art Lan­caster, about the se­lec­tion of the for­mer rugby league star Sam Burgess in the 2015 World Cup squad but be­lieves Lan­caster was the right choice in 2012. “The whole thing needed re­build­ing af­ter the 2011 World Cup and Stu­art did that. It just came un­stuck in our World Cup but the pieces were in place for Ed­die Jones and Stu­art de­serves credit.”

Jones is leav­ing af­ter the 2019 World Cup and the dilemma for the RFU will be the same as two years ago: in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence or an English­man? “The field is limited in terms of Test ex­pe­ri­ence,” says An­drew. “Ed­die’s ap­point­ment was all about not hav­ing an­other coach with­out an in­ter­na­tional back­ground.

“The Eng­land rugby, cricket and football jobs are up there with the tough­est in the world, high pro­file and high pres­sure. How do you ap­point the head coach? Through an in­ter­view process, as we did with Stu­art, or go and find one, as hap­pened with Ed­die? In the end you only know if you are right if the guy is suc­cess­ful.”

Pho­to­graph: Dean Mouhtaropou­los/Getty Images

Rob An­drew stepped away from rugby in 2016 and is now the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Sus­sex CCC.

Pho­to­graph: David Rogers/Getty Images

An­drew, left, sits along­side Martin John­son as he announces his res­ig­na­tion as the Eng­land head coach in Novem­ber 2011 at Twick­en­ham.

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