Wednesday, October 11, 2017

We need to talk about Rob Andrew

Unlike my other blogs, the opening part of my musing this week is a personal view on an individual who certainly divides opinion within the game and solicits very strong feeling among Gloucester supporters. Rob Andrew.

Once a star of the English game, he provided me with one of my first great memories of International rugby when he slotted a long range drop goal to beat Australia in the Quarter final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Alongside Will Carling, he represented a modern and forward thinking approach to Rugby Union. However unlike Carling who found himself isolated to a certain extant following his infamous ’57 Old Farts’ comment, Rob Andrew was one of the vanguard to grab the opportunities of professionalism in the mid 1990’s with both hands.

Sir John Hall took him to Newcastle following the 1995 World Cup and led them into the top flight and then on to win the inaugural Premiership in 1998 as a Player/Director of Rugby. Andrew presided over a side that included Inga Tuigamala, Doddie Wier, Alan Tate, Tony Underwood, Dean Ryan and a very young Jonny Wilkinson. They played an exciting brand of rugby and were unbeaten until March. The Falcons would never really reach the same heights again. Sir John Hall sold the club the following year as the financial realities of Professionalism began to set in but Rob Andrew continued at the helm winning the Powergen Cup in 2001 and again in 2004. He would move on to join the RFU in 2006 but before he did increasingly it was off the field comments that began to dominate the headlines. Never more so than a bizarre incident that took place after a narrow defeat to Gloucester, at Kingsholm, in the 2001/2002 season.

An ugly exchange involving Olivier Azam and Epi Tiaone which resulted in both being given a red card was turned into a full blown race row by Rob Andrew, claiming he had heard racial abuse directed at Tiaone not only by Azam but by a section of supporters in the Grandstand. Gloucester and Azam immediately rejected the accusations and the French hooker threatened libel proceedings, while the now defunct Gloucester Rugby Supporters Association also made moves to sue for defamation. Meanwhile former owner Tom Walkinshaw banned the Falcons Director of Rugby from Kingsholm until an apology was provided. Eventually one was given, although when reading back over the text from the joint statement made by both clubs, it is hardly a forthright one.

"Although the remarks were made in good faith based on statements made to Rob Andrew before the press conference, he now accepts that there was insufficient evidence to justify the remarks," a joint Gloucester-Newcastle statement said.
"With regard to Gloucester supporters, Rob Andrew accepts that only one Gloucester supporter made comments of an inappropriate nature.
"With regard to Olivier Azam, Rob Andrew accepts that it was never the case that Olivier Azam was alleged by Epi Taione to have made more than one racist remark.
"Mr Andrew apologises to Olivier Azam and to Gloucester supporters for any offence caused to them by these comments.”

I met Rob Andrew in 2014 at an event to mark one year before the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final. I was introduced to him and I found him to be quite likeable but did notice he became a little ‘standoffish’ when I mentioned I was a Gloucester supporter. I didn’t mention the incident or the ban or even his subsequent apology. It took all of my strength not to regale the others in the group stood around me of how I, along with 11,000 others chanted “Are you watching Rob Andrew?” to the tune of Bread of Heaven when Newcastle visited Kingsholm in the Zurich Playoffs.

He was, at the time, the RFU’s Director of Professional Rugby – not directly responsible for anything to do with the England National side, yet he did have a great deal of influence within the organisation having previously appointed the then Head coach, Stuart Lancaster.

It was the appointment of Lancaster and the subsequent debacle of England’s world cup exit at the group stages in 2015 that has attracted much attention over the past week. Rob Andrew has written and released book. Often the best way to create interest is to find something controversial to write about and milk it for all its worth in the public eye. In this case, the decision by Stuart Lancaster, the other coaches and ultimately the RFU to fund the signing of Rugby League star Sam Burgess.

 From the outset the decision seemed flawed. Unlike Jason Robinson or Chris Ashton who quickly and successfully converted Rugby codes from Wing to Wing, Burgess was always going to struggle. Firstly as a Rugby League ‘Forward’ there was no direct comparison in playing positions. People at the time pointed to Sonny Bill Williams and his success, but he is probably the most talented Rugby player of his generation, surrounded by an All Black team who are the arguably the greatest of all time and more importantly was given plenty of time to develop his Union game. Burgess was given one year, playing for a Bath team who couldn’t decide his best position – Centre or Back row and was ushered into the England squad for the World Cup, overtaking a number of players who had, up until that point, done relatively well.

Rob Andrew has laid much of the blame for the early World Cup exit at the feet of Stuart Lancaster, highlighting the Burgess affair as an example of the problems and issues that blighted the campaign. To an extant I agree with him. Eddie Jones, with much of the same squad has led England to a record unbeaten run, won two 6 Nation titles including a Grand Slam and played exciting and attractive rugby. But some of the blame has to be shared with Rob Andrew too. He chose Lancaster, he also chose his predecessor, Martin Johnson, who suffered from a relative dearth of World Class talent – certainly compared to Eddie Jones’ riches – and ill-discipline on and off the field. Two coaches, picked by Andrew who failed at successive tournaments.

A major criticism often levelled at Rob Andrew is that it was difficult to quantify what he actually did. There was always a suspicion of meddling or interference from above, and as someone who seemed to avoid any sanction when things went wrong, all while other were sacked or replaced did nothing to negate a sense he was somehow untouchable. Maybe some were jealous of his influence and power, but the general antipathy towards him suggests otherwise. His comments and book come at a time where English rugby is on a high. It appears under Eddie Jones that lessons were learnt quickly and if the squad and International set-up continue on their current trajectory, they should be challenging New Zealand in 2019. Other than increasing sales, what he hopes to achieve (if anything) is unclear.

Rob Andrew was an excellent player for Wasps, Newcastle and England and in the early days of Professionalism a good Director of Rugby. He is undoubtedly a strong personality whose voice definitely has a place in the modern game. He is one of the few people to see the full transition from Amateur to Professional with an in depth knowledge of the inner workings of the RFU and the club boardrooms but unfortunately he has always struggled to be likeable. This is probably his biggest failing. He seems to rub people up the wrong way, appear self-serving or disingenuous. I have no doubt that this is unfair, but perception is crucial and maybe in this case – when trying to sell a book – it may actually come in handy.

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