Making predictions is a hazardous, if obligatory, business around this time of the year but here’s one very modest offering – 2020 will be the year of the coach.
There is invariably a coaching merry-go-round immediately after all World Cups with many contracts timed to end after the tournament or, with a curt thank you, various Unions deciding enough is enough. Such a major changing of the guard means new coaches are often the story when Test rugby recommences.
Down in the southern hemisphere New Zealand and Australia will be under new coaching regimes while Rassie Erasmus is trying to assume more of a DoR role with South Africa. Milton Haig left Georgia and in the Six Nations just two coaches remain in situ.
Let’s concentrate on the latter which is nearly upon us and, in no particular order, welcome Franco Smith, Fabian Galthie, Wayne Pivac and Andy Farrell (at least to the head coach role) while its welcome back to Eddie Jones and Gregor Townsend.
Smith, of course, succeeds Connor O’Shea who bailed out early after three disappointing years in charge of Italy. O’Shea didn’t manage a single Six Nations win during his tenure and his selections became rather eccentric, so the bar is pretty low as Smith makes himself as comfortable as possible in the hot seat.
The South African’s appointment was seemingly signed, sealed and delivered months ahead of the World Cup which makes you wonder what would have happened if Italy had produced a miracle result against either the Boks or New Zealand and reached the quarter-finals.
He doesn’t come with a huge reputation like some of his predecessors, but after six years as a player in Italy and a further six years coaching Treviso he does know Italian rugby inside out and is well respected there.
In particular his six-year spell in charge at Benetton saw him develop and bring through many youngsters who now make up the bulk of the national squad.
Smith’s first big decision is looming though. Sergio Parisse has confirmed that rumours of retirement were premature and he wants to bat on, but the question is does he still warrant a starting place at No.8 and, if he won’t be around for the next four years leading into RWC2023, should the big break happen soon rather than later?
Just to make that call even more difficult, the 36-year-old Parisse is now looking a rejuvenated figure at Toulon where he moved in the summer.
Over in France Fabian Galthie is also starting anew and, although he has infinitely more playing resources than Smith, some of the challenges are similar.
France – despite all the foreign imports – still have a huge player base to select from and getting the right fifteen on the park has perennially been their biggest issue, that and entering the fray with the right mindset.
Galthie, the scrum-half and France captain, was a realist and pragmatist, an extravagantly gifted individual who reined himself in massively for the collective good and that has also underpinned his coaching career at Stade Francais and Montpellier.
One huge plus for Galthie and France is that Toulouse are beginning to kick ass again – there is much truth to the axiom that a strong Toulouse usually means a strong France.
Talking of mindsets, Andy Farrell will need to fundamentally change his after long years as an assistant with England and Ireland.
The buck now stops with him and for all his massive experience in both codes that will take a while to absorb. His first decision should be to stop the nonsense of the IRU barring some media from official team Press conferences as they did on Monday.
Rather than hold a conference that accommodated all media that wanted to attend, Farrell adopted an invite-only approach that has been used in recent times by IRFU high-performance boss David Nucifora.
That can only end in tears – Ireland’s – and is a completely avoidable distraction.
The fourth new boy is Wayne Pivac in Wales where he faces the virtually impossible task of replacing Warren Gatland. Pivac will know, of course, that he must be his own man with his own ideas and we have seen enough moments of brilliance from Scarlets in recent seasons to know the kind of rugby he aspires to.
Massively in his favour is one of the strongest Welsh squads in history and the continuity Alun Wyn Jones offers.
Jones will ensure the standards of application that became the norm under Gatland and Shaun Edwards are continued; what Pivac must provide is his own coherent game plan and the right ambience for Wales to thrive.
And what of Townsend and Jones? Townsend is under huge pressure. Scotland, for all their occasional glimpses of class and elan, are not progressing as wished and their failure to reach the knock-out stages of the World Cup for the first time was a tough blow to take. Toonie needs some big results asap to buy himself more time and to reassure some of the nervous blazers at the SRU.
As for Eddie Jones, who knows? Both he and the RFU are circling each other warily at present with two years left on his contract.
If Jones really wants it, if he really believes England can go one better in France, if the hunger and ambition is there, he is surely still the man for England.
But if the hunger and intensity has dropped, if the dream suddenly seems too distant and unattainable, it will quickly show and in that case Jones and England will need go their separate way this March not next. All to play for gents.
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