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Andrew's autumn test

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Simon Austin | 08:44 UK time, Thursday, 29 October 2009

The 96 names in England's senior, Saxons and Under-20 squads are neatly arranged in colour-coded rows on a wall of Rob Andrew's Twickenham office.

He's been busy rejigging them in recent weeks, following injuries to a dozen players in Martin Johnson's senior squad.

Next month's autumn internationals, against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand, will be the benchmark of the progress Andrew has made since becoming England's first director of elite rugby three years ago.

His remit then was to "develop young rugby talent through the elite player pathway".

Rob AndrewAndrew says he inherited a broken system in 2006

And with so many leading players out injured, we are about to find out whether or not he has succeeded. The former England fly-half accepts that now is the time to judge the progress he has made.

"At my interview for the job I said it would take three years to shape where we needed to go," he told me when I visited his Twickenham HQ a few weeks ago.

"We've now got two years' worth of graduates from the Under-20s and a couple of them are coming into the Saxons and even the senior squad."

Courtney Lawes is the most notable of these players. The Northampton forward has been rocketed from the Under-20s into Johnson's squad in the space of only a few months.

Yet Andrew still seems to have a lot of critics to win over. Google "what does Rob Andrew do?" and you get more than 1,000 responses.

Perhaps it's because his position has never existed before, or because people are suspicious of a well-known figure deemed to be lurking in the shadows behind the England coach.

Andrew insists his job is to support the England coach and take a strategic view of the whole of elite rugby, much like a director of football would do at a Premier League club.

He suggests he inherited a broken system in 2006, where the England team "existed in isolation" and there was "no joined-up thinking about what came after 2003".

So Andrew has created an "elite pathway", which starts with the academies and runs through the Under-18s to the Under-20 side, the Saxons and ultimately the full England team.

The Under-18s are unbeaten since 2007 and the Under-20s have reached the last two World Cup finals, which they lost on each occasion to New Zealand.

Will Carling and Rob AndrewAndrew won 71 caps for England, winning the Grand Slam in 1991, 1992 and 1995

"We are closing the gap on New Zealand and have caught South Africa and Australia at age-grade level," argues Andrew, who looks as lithe and youthful as he did in his playing days.

The big test now will be whether the graduates of the junior teams can make the grade in Johnson's side. Andrew's other major objective has been to mend the RFU's broken relationship with the Guinness Premiership clubs.

In the middle of our interview, Andrew got up, unlocked a cupboard and pulled out a bulky A4 document.

It was the eight-year agreement between the clubs and union, signed in November 2007.
It outlines a system under which the clubs are compensated for agreeing to allow the RFU to manage England's elite players.

"This took a great deal of time and a lot of money to put together," Andrew says. "We needed to have a better relationship with the Premiership, because that is fundamental to England's future success.

"I actually think our relationship is very strong now. It's not perfect, but there has been a realisation that we need to work together."

So far, so good. But Andrew's nadir came last spring, when he was almost universally criticised for his handling of Brian Ashton's sacking as England coach.

Just weeks after giving Ashton a vote of confidence, Andrew had pulled the trigger on the likeable Lancastrian. Worst of all, it seemed everyone knew what was happening to Ashton other than the man himself, thanks to a series of leaks from the RFU.

The former Newcastle director of rugby adjusts his rimless glasses as he thinks back to last March and admits it was a "difficult, unsettling period".

Yet he insists he would not do anything differently if the situation arose again.

"It was a rescue job in 2007 and Brian was exactly the right man for picking up the pieces at that particular time," he says.

"But in the end, it was about trying to build something for the longer term and getting the right guy in, which was Martin. Unfortunately, one of the problems of dealing with high-profile personnel changes in sport is that you can't do it quietly."

How is his relationship with Ashton now?

"Of course he was disappointed, but that's the same in any walk of life when you make changes. It was tough, but we got over it."

Andrew also adds that Ashton did some consultancy work for the elite department last year. When the RFU's elite director was copping flak from all sides last March, Sir Clive Woodward waded in by questioning Andrew's credentials and suggesting his relationship with Johnson would be "a forced marriage".

Yet Andrew shrugs off Woodward's criticism - it's worth noting that the World Cup-winning coach was passed over for the elite director job - and insists he has a strong working relationship with Johnson.

The 46-year-old, a Cambridge Blue at both rugby and cricket, speaks enthusiastically about Johnson's first 18 months in the England hotseat and believes the side have "moved a long way from a difficult start" under him.

"Martin is very clear on what he wants to do, but he also listens to people," Andrew says.
"He's been there and done it at the very highest level, is a quick learner and knows what is required to be successful."

Now comes the big test against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand - all of whom are higher in the world rankings than England - at Twickenham next month.

The games will tell us a lot about Johnson's evolving team, and also about the progress Andrew has made behind the scenes at Twickenham.

* For up-to-the-minute updates, you can follow me on my Twitter feed


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