Andrew steps up as political playmaker

The RFU – and England’s rugby fans – will hope their former fly-half Rob Andrew can once again play a pivotal role, this time in the battle between RFU and Prremier Rugby.

Incredibly, England could find themselves with a solitary day of full-scale training before tackling the Six Nations pre-tournament favourites Ireland in Dublin on February 24.

While Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan and his squad will have a fortnight together, the England players will not be reunited until after next weekend’s packed Guinness Premiership programme.

More than half of England’s matchday 22 involved against Italy yesterday could feature for their clubs next Sunday, including pivotal figures like Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell and captain Phil Vickery.

Such a scenario would seriously reduce the world champions’ training options, given essential required player-recovery time.

“If most of our players play next Sunday, that will probably give us, realistically, one day of preparation for Dublin, compared with two weeks [for Ireland]. That’s the reality,” confessed Andrew, the RFU Director of Elite Rugby.

“We have got three [Premiership] matches next Sunday, and possibly something like 16 of the [England] 22 could be involved.

“If players play next Sunday, then they won’t train Monday or Tuesday. They will probably train Wednesday, travel Thursday, have the team-run Friday and play in Dublin on Saturday, so it’s obvious what the position is there.

“Head coaches like time with the players and, in an ideal world, we would have liked to have had the next fortnight.”

Andrew has already spoken with Premier Rugby chairman Tom Walkinshaw about the issue, although England’s top clubs are under no obligation to release their players from league action.

A compensation sum to the clubs from the RFU could oil the process, as could some ceding of ground in the ongoing struggle over voting rights on the board of ERC, the organisation running the Heineken Cup. But Andrew insists that he is only asking politely for now, rather than bargaining.

“We are trying to get what we hope will be the [England] starting XV released from playing next weekend,” said Andrew.

“All we can do is request. I have already spoken to Tom Walkinshaw about it, and he said he will do what he can during the course of the week.

“We will go through Premier Rugby initially, and see what route they send us down. If it comes down to one-on-one discussions during the week then we will do that as well. There is no obligation on the clubs at all.

“At the end of the day, I think it will be an individual player-by-player situation, and there is nothing else we can do about that.

“That’s the way it is, and we respect that from the clubs’ point of view – there is no obligation on them whatsoever not to play players next weekend.”

And England head coach Brian Ashton, whose team will head to Dublin unbeaten after two Six Nations games, hopes a satisfactory compromise can be reached.

Ashton said: “All I can say is if a lot of the guys play next Sunday, then we won’t be able to train until the following Wednesday. We fly out on Thursday, and play on Saturday, which I think probably speaks for itself.

“It is out of my control – there is nothing I can do at all. Other people need to sort this out. I will just wait to see what the outcome is, and then act accordingly.”

Ashton, meanwhile, has readily accepted some of the blame for England’s lacklustre display against Italy that saw them grind out a 20-7 victory.

He added: “I put so much emphasis on field position at the start of the game, because I thought it was really important to try to pin the Italians down in their 22, but maybe I over-emphasised that during the week.

“I will take the flak for that – it is not a problem at all.

“I thought on bot

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