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McIlraith column: Will the All Blacks break the paradigm of promoting assistants to top job?

All Blacks

As an All Black, Tony Brown played just 18 Tests and lived almost permanently in the shadow of one of the greatest New Zealand fly-halves of the modern era, Andrew Mehrtens.

As a coach, he won’t be applying for the vacant position with the All Blacks himself, but by stepping out of the shadows to stand alongside the out-of-contract Japanese boss Jamie Joseph, Brown may have made himself the unlikeliest of kingmakers in the race to succeed Steve Hansen.

Like Wayne Smith before him, Brown has preferred to live the life of the assistant coach, focusing on the attacking strategy while leaving the non-coaching duties to his boss.

It’s a method that has worked, most recently for Japan’s celebrated Rugby World Cup campaign, where Brown was credited for the exhilarating attack that exposed both Ireland and Scotland.

That success earned Brown high praise and has made him a man in demand.

So much so that he was courted by the leading All Black coaching contenders Ian Foster and Scott Robertson before this week declaring his intention to remain at Joseph’s side.

Brown’s rebuff was the second blow in just over a week for Foster, who would have been a shoe-in for the job had the All Blacks defended the Rugby World Cup, and almost as likely had they gotten past England to make the final.

The comprehensive manner of the semi-final exit has left Hansen’s long-time assistant vulnerable, especially as the public has rather unfairly never warmed to the former Chiefs coach, meaning their desire to see change is strong.

The acquisition of Brown, and also of Joseph, who was rumoured to have been another target for the Foster ticket, would have been popular, and could have shored up his candidacy.

Instead, even though Joseph is yet to declare his intentions, it seems likely that Foster will now be in competition with the pair, whose work with Japan presents a compelling case for the job.

Robertson, the three-time Super Rugby-winning Crusaders coach, also has a strong claim, especially as he has successfully served his ‘apprenticeship’, progressing through the coaching grades.

Prior to Robertson’s arrival, the Super Rugby heavyweights had gone nine years without a title.

They’ve won three from three in the time since, which would have made Robertson’s ascension to the All Black role almost certain, had there not been such a queue of equally qualified contenders, most of whom have experience coaching overseas, which he lacks.

Scott Robertson
Great Crusader: Scott Robertson has been the brains behind the Crusaders being an unstoppable force in Super Rugby. Getty Images

Robertson is trying to remove that vulnerability from his application by securing a coach with Test experience to act as his assistant.

It’s a smart play.

‘Who goes in with who’ is going to be critical.

After the All Blacks crashed out of the 2007 World Cup in the quarter- finals, New Zealand Rugby slightly disingenuously used the presentation of a coaching team to justify reappointing Graham Henry.

Henry had Hansen and Smith already in place as assistants. His rival for the role, the five-time Super Rugby-winning Robbie Deans, had answered the union’s advertisement for a head coach, and so had not put forward any assistants. Allow us to put forward the right online game casinos UK on offer at our friends Conquestador.

Twelve years on, the union has made it clear this appointment will be as much about the selection of a coaching ‘team’ as it will be the head coaching position itself, hence the mad scramble for allies, highlighted by the twin approaches for Brown.

Henry is on the panel who decides the appointee. The others are the New Zealand Rugby board chairman Brent Impey, the incoming chief executive Mark Robinson, high performance manager Mike Anthony, as well as the recent World Cup-winning New Zealand netball coach Waimarama Taumaunu.

Some players will also be consulted although, as is the way with these processes, the conversation is likely to be dominated by a few key voices.

Henry will undoubtedly be one of these, which may not be good news for Foster, given Henry had argued as long as two years ago that Hansen should step down, citing the length of time he had been involved, and the need for a fresh voice.

By the time Hansen took his tracksuit off for the final time after the All Blacks’ win over Wales in the recent third-place match, a staggering 5620 days had elapsed from the day of his first Test match involvement, as Henry’s assistant, in June 2004.

In an effort to portray the process as open after the perceived ‘closed shop’ of the Henry and Hansen years, New Zealand Rugby has contacted 26 potential applicants, some based overseas, to gauge their interest in applying.

Jamie Joseph
Homecoming: Jamie Joseph is among the favourites for the All Blacks head coaching job after guiding Japan to the quarter-finals during the World Cup. Getty Images

How genuine those entreaties are, given the public focus on Foster, Robertson and Joseph especially, remains to be seen, although with opportunities to join a coaching ‘team’ potentially on offer, there should be some interest.

Most intriguing is the case of Dave Rennie, who has acknowledged New Zealand’s approach, but almost certainly already has the Wallaby job in his back pocket.

The Glasgow Warriors coach did well with the New Zealand Under-20s, and twice won Super Rugby with the Chiefs, so the lure of his homeland will be strong.

He is also likely to be aware of the ‘complexities’ of coaching in Australia, so the question may be, would he be prepared to settle for a place on someone else’s coaching team to get himself into the All Black set-up, instead of risking his reputation with the Wallabies?

If so, he could be an attractive proposition for Foster, now that Brown is no longer an option.

While New Zealand Rugby revealed that Joe Schmidt had turned down the chance to be part of the process, he is still being pursued by at least one of the leading contenders in the hope that he will come on board in some capacity.

How an application by Warren Gatland might sit is also an interesting proposition.

Coaching his country has been the life-long ambition for the incoming Chiefs coach. With the roadblocks of the last 16 years no longer in place, there will never be a better time to apply than now.

To do so would require disengaging from the British & Irish Lions tour in two years.

Giving up the chance to be the first Lions coach to go undefeated through series in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa would be a massive sacrifice, but such is Gatland’s drive to complete his career by coaching the All Blacks that he might be prepared to consider it.

And his application would really throw the race wide open.

An appointment will be made before Christmas.


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