Ian Ritchie has a solution to England’s coaching future staring him in the face: Appoint Sir Clive Woodward as RFU performance director and let him get on with picking a head coach and three assistant coaches to forge a brave new world for the badly wilted Red Rose.
Ritchie won’t do it, of course, if he takes advice from Rob Andrew, Woodward’s arch enemy and the RFU’s current director of elite rugby.
But the RFU chief executive should ignore that animosity for the good of England and hope Woodward then sticks to the support he voiced for Eddie Jones, above, after Japan’s epic World Cup victory over South Africa.
Woodward, below, should dovetail the Jones appointment as head coach with his recent mission statement to develop England’s international coaching reserves by asking Jones to engage Exeter’s Rob Baxter (forwards), Northampton’s Jim Mallinder (backs), and Shaun Edwards (defence) as his assistants.
Baxter, the brightest coaching star in the Premiership, already has England credentials, having been co-opted as forwards coach during their winning tour of Argentina in 2013. That precedent could lead to his involvement again, as long as England show the flexibility to allow him to stay for a season (or more) with Exeter in a dual coaching role. The same could apply to Mallinder at Northampton.
There is a cogent argument that those coaches at the competitive edge of Premiership and European club rugby have a sharper insight into selection and strategy at Test level than those on the outside.
Furthermore, if Ritchie wants a reference point for this dual role he need look no further than Michael Cheika, who the Australian Union allowed to fulfil the joint role as head coach of the Waratahs and the Wallabies when he first took over.
The RFU need top English coaches in place as part of an elite succession plan, while at the same time allowing those coaches to learn from the overseas big-hitter they employ. That’s why the RFU should consider it to be a prerequisite that any of the tried-and-tested international coaches they approach should be prepared to work with homegrown coaches of the calibre of Baxter, below, and Mallinder. As for Jones, what he did in coaching Japan to victory over South Africa in Brighton is conclusive evidence that his tactical thinking is still as sharp as a tack.
I had a pitch side view as he suckered the South Africans into ‘mugs’ gully’, trusting tha,t if they met stern defence from the much smaller Japanese, it would reinforce their ‘bigger, faster, stronger’ mentality, and they would set out to steamroller the resistance.
However, Jones had also worked out that, if you used the long-kicking of full-back Ayumu Goromaru and fly-half Kosei Ono to consistently rifle their clearances into the South African 22, the rapidly advancing Japanese defensive line could double-tackle the Springbok carriers in or around their own 10 metre line. This prevented South Africa from exploiting their superior weight and power at close quarters in the Japanese 22 with the regularity they wanted.
The plan worked because the Japanese accuracy and execution was outstanding.
It was a triumph of coaching acumen and earned Jones one of the great underdog victories.
However, Jones is among the leading contenders for the England job based not just on the uplift he gave Japan in 2015, but also the inspiration he offered South Africa as a consultant coach on their way to their 2007 world title. Add to that the way he took an outgunned Australian side to within an inch of snatching the 2003 world title off England, and his work speaks for itself.
Jones is Machiavellian and he loves mind games – but he would get England players thinking for themselves, and their team, again. He also has the benefit of being well-travelled, including a two-season stint with Saracens after the 2007 World Cup before heading off to Japan.
The only impediment to securing Jones’ services is that he has just arrived in South Africa to start as rugby director for the Stormers.
Whether the RFU have missed the boat regarding Jones remains to be seen, but, if they have, the lack of urgency following England’s pool stage exit on October 3 will be blamed, and with good reason. It should not have been beyond Ritchie to have had a contingency plan in place, based on a grid of which top coaches were available.
Alongside Jones, there are four coaches with the record to fit the RFU criterion of an international heavyweight. Whether a bank vault of RFU cash will be enough to tempt Warren Gatland from Wales, or Joe Schmidt from Ireland is the £2m question.
Gatland is the most decorated coach in the Northern Hemisphere. The Kiwi’s honours board includes three Premiership titles and a European Cup with Wasps (2004), two Wales Grand Slams (2008, 2012), a World Cup semi-final (2011), and a Lions series victory (Australia 2013).
Anyone who suggests that the round-the-corner ‘Warrenball’ practised by Wales is the only tactical blueprint in Gatland’s locker should dust off some of the Wasps footage from 2000-04, when a lightweight but punchy backline featuring the likes of Rob Howley, Alex King, Josh Lewsey and Fraser Waters counter-attacked brilliantly. The truest yardstick of the success that Gatland and Edwards have enjoyed with Wales is that it has been achieved during a period in which the Welsh regions not only failed to make headway in Europe, but were at loggerheads over central contracts with the WRU.
Those Grand Slams were also secured without the player depth that England and France enjoy and was typified by their ability to keep Wales competitive despite losing half a dozen key men to injury in the 2015 World Cup. Beating England in the pool and then pushing South Africa to the brink in the quarter-finals is testament to their coaching gifts.
This week, Ritchie was warned off approaching Gatland, whose Wales contract has been extended to the end of the 2019 World Cup, by the WRU chairman, Gareth Davies.
The Irish are similarly protective of Schmidt, who is contracted until 2017 and has already delivered a European Cup double for Leinster and, over the last two seasons, a Six Nations Championship double for Ireland. It would be a big surprise if Schmidt crossed the Irish Sea, given the roots he has put down, including becoming an Irish citizen a couple of months ago.
Wayne Smith is another Kiwi who has been on England’s wish list for some time. Smith has just won his second World Cup winners medal as an All Black assistant coach and has been at the heart of the NZ domination of the international game over the past decade.
Smith’s experience of coaching Northampton (2001-2004) gives him an intrinsic understanding of the club-country territory. However, he turned down the opportunity to work with Lancaster and, like Steve Hansen and Graham Henry, he is reluctant to coach against New Zealand. He has also said that he is looking forward to a year-long sabbatical – so his heart appears to be elsewhere.
Jake White, the South African 2007 World Cup winning coach, has said he is keen to do the England job, but only if it is a genuine offer without the “rigmarole” of going through an RFU panel process. The reservations about White start with his inclination towards all things South African, typified by his transplant into the Montpellier squad of 11 of his countrymen last summer.
White is also seen as a champion of a blueprint based on set-piece domination, kicking for territory and suffocating press defence and kick-chase.
That almost certainly makes him the least appealing option in terms of the playing style that most England fans hanker after. Yet, you sense that if going back to traditional English/South African strengths based on a powerhouse pack was a winning formula, it would soon attract English disciples.
The idea that Michael Cheika has been sounded out has been vigorously denied by the RFU. It would be the most remarkable move of all if a true-blue Aussie like Cheika, who has just taken the Wallabies to a World Cup final, jumped ship.
It would be doubly astounding given that he is a self-made millionaire who does not need the RFU’s money.
Of the other overseas candidates, two more New Zealanders, Dave Rennie of the Waikato Chiefs and Jamie Joseph of the Highlanders, are outside bets. Rennie took the New Zealand U20 side to three consecutive junior world titles, before winning two back-to-back Super 15 titles for the Chiefs (2012 and 2013). Meanwhile, former All Black blindside Joseph took the Highlanders to their first Super 15 title last season.
In both cases, the huge increase in salary and the step-up to international level offered by England could be persuasive, with Rennie’s greater experience making him the front-runner.
The last of the Kiwi contingent is Robbie Deans, who was among the most highly-rated coaches in the world after winning an unprecedented five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, before deciding to cross the ditch to coach Australia. His five-season innings ended unhappily when his tenure with the Wallabies was curtailed after the defeat by the 2013 Lions. Deans is currently coaching the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan.
In terms of a preferred option for the new England regime, my pecking order is:
However, if Ritchie blocks Woodward and Jones is unavailable, I would advocate the involvement of the same assistant coaches with the options as head coach in this running order:
If they were unavailable, Ritchie could offer a highly lucrative one-year contract to Jake White, Robbie Deans or Jamie Joseph, with the option to extend.
Should none of the above wish to take up the job, then England could do worse than follow Baxter’s suggestion of dual club-country contracts awarded to two Premiership coaches.
That is far from ideal and is a quick-fix until the RFU appoint a performance director and get their elite rugby act together in terms of process.
However, if a respected chairman of selectors is appointed – with Woodward best qualified – you have a workable English option which will not cost a fortune.
Comments are closed on this article.