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While the Rugby Football Union knew on Wednesday that it must start the search for a successor to Sir Clive Woodward, whose resignation to take a job in football was confirmed during the day, it remained unclear when that successor would take up the job.

Sir Clive was not expected to formalise his resignation until Thursday, while meetings over the detail of his departure were continuing on Wednesday night at Twickenham. An announcement about his football future is expected following Southampton FC's board meeting on Thursday, but his role is likely to be as a consultant rather than manager.

Having taken the option of giving a year's notice, Sir Clive could coach England until the end of the Six Nations Championship season in March. But, in spite of his unparalleled achievements, it makes sense for the RFU to seek an earlier departure.

The recent example of Sir Bobby Robson shows the pitfalls awaiting coaches in any sport who are known to be on the way out. The Six Nations season would be further complicated by Sir Clive's other role as coach of the British Lions, which loomed as a potential conflict of interest even before it was clear his interest in football went beyond lifelong fandom.

One widely floated possibility is that Sir Clive should continue in charge of England during the autumn internationals against Canada, Australia and South Africa. Given that the search for a successor could be drawn out and involve difficult negotiations with current employers, this has its attractions. But it would prolong the period of uncertainty.

The obvious answer is to ask his deputy Andy Robinson to take over pro tem. Robinson is in any case an extremely credible candidate for the permanent post, a tough-minded, astute expert on forward play who enjoyed success as a chief coach with Bath before becoming an integral part of the Woodward system.

Appointing the deputy can seem unadventurous but often proves successful, as Leicester found in ending their worldwide search for the best successor to Dean Richards by giving the job to his number two, John Wells, on the basis of a season-rescuing winning run. If Robinson is not upgraded, Rob Andrew has compelling credentials from nine years as director of rugby at Newcastle and his role as mentor to Jonny Wilkinson - a hugely important figure whoever becomes coach - together with the political skills that led the RFU to choose him as chair of a working party on the structure of the rugby season. Nigel Melville of Gloucester, would bring a thoughtful intelligence to the role while the less well-known but formidably bright Mark Evans of Harlequins came close to taking the Wales job from higher-profile rivals.

Having offered the job to Graham Henry before appointing Woodward seven years ago, the RFU has no ideological objection to an overseas appointment. Former South Africa coach Nick Mallett is available in spite of winning consecutive French championships with Stade Francaise and is also English-born. Former Ireland coach Warren Gatland's record with Wasps would ensure that any application would be taken seriously.

Whoever succeeds will need to decide how much of the structure and personnel of Clive Woodward's World Cup-winning operation to retain, settle on a new captain to follow Lawrence Dallaglio and see off the challenge of first the autumn visitors, then Six Nations rivals who will hope to find England at its most vulnerable in more than a decade. He will also have to cope with the raised public expectations created by Sir Clive's successes, but with the advantage of Sir Clive's great achievement - the profound change in the culture of English rugby that made it possible for his team to win the World Cup where predecessors had fallen short.

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