Rob Andrew: ‘I’m not being alarmist … the game is getting worse, not better’
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.”
Rob Andrew stepped away from rugby in 2016 and is now the chief executive of Sussex CCC.
Andrew, left, sits alongside Martin Johnson as he announces his resignation as the England head coach in November 2011 at Twickenham.