One of the most vexing issues that all four Home Unions have had to face over the last eight years is that their homegrown international coaching talent is not up to the world-class standards required to win the big prizes. It explains why over that period New Zealander Warren Gatland has made the Lions and Wales his own fiefdom, and why England went Australian by appointing Eddie Jones after sacking Stuart Lancaster two seasons ago.
It is also evident in another Kiwi, Joe Schmidt, taking Ireland to new heights with their landmark win over New Zealand, as well as his fellow countryman Vern Cotter reinvigorating Scotland before his handover this summer to Gregor Townsend.
The Southern Hemisphere takeover signs are not just limited to those three New Zealanders and an Aussie in charge at international level. Almost half the head coaches in the PRO12 are non-indigenous with three New Zealanders – Wayne Pivac (Scarlets), Dave Rennie (Glasgow), Kieran Keane (Connacht) – a South African, Rassie Erasmus (Munster), and an Aussie, Les Kiss (Ulster), plying their trade over here.
While the numbers are slightly less in the Premiership they are still significant at 33.3 percent, with two South African head coaches Gary Gold (Worcester) and Brendan Venter (London Irish), as well as the Kiwi duo of Todd Blackadder and Tabai Matson at Bath, and the Australian, Matt O’Connor, at Leicester.
If two of the biggest beasts in the coaching game, Gatland and Jones, stick hard and fast to their exit strategies after the 2019 World Cup, then plans for the appointment of their successors should be on the respective drawing boards at the RFU and WRU right now.
However, finding homegrown coaches of the calibre and, crucially, the experience of Gatland and Jones is a significant stumbling block.
What sets them apart – as it did with Wayne Smith, Graham Henry and Steve Hansen before them – is that they have extensive knowledge of coaching at elite level in both hemispheres. Smith coached Northampton, and Henry and Hansen were with Wales.
Gatland coached Waikato in between coaching Ireland, Wasps and Wales, while Jones coached Australia to the 2003 World Cup final. He was also a consultant to the victorious 2007 South African world champion side, and then coached Japan to their extraordinary 2015 World Cup triumph over South Africa.
While there are English Premiership coaches who look capable of getting on the runway to success at Test level, very few have achieved take-off in terms of varied coaching experience.
Rob Baxter, top, is considered by many to be at the top of the list to replace Jones, especially after taking Exeter Chiefs to their first Premiership title in May, just seven years after winning promotion to the top tier. Baxter has done the hard yards by making his mark in the Premiership and European Cup, as well as coaching in the Championship. He has also had a brief taste of international rugby as an assistant coach on England’s 2013 tour of Argentina.
Yet, apart from that he has never coached outside the Devon heartland where he was schooled so well – and in anybody’s book that is a significant gap in an otherwise glowing CV.
Ideally, if Baxter is seen by the RFU as Jones’ successor, he should be working alongside him now – just as Hansen did before succeeding Henry as All Black coach, and as Rob Howley has been doing alongside Gatland for Wales.
If two years before the 2019 World Cup is too soon for England to get the logistics in place with the Chiefs for them to release Baxter, then the final year leading into the tournament would be better than no time at all. If he is the RFU’s chosen man then it is imperative he familiarises himself with the way Jones, above, does the job, and which of his methods he should adopt.
Baxter needs the experience of the Test pressure-cooker before he gets the job – rather than having to learn everything on the hoof should he be appointed. The same is true of Dai Young, who is well-placed to come in alongside Howley when Gatland moves on. Yet, while Young has extensive experience as head coach of Wasps, and Cardiff before that, he has never been in the Wales fold.
Baxter has keen rivals within the England camp already, with Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard ensconced in Jones’ coaching panel. Borthwick’s stock as a forwards coach has risen because his recent success with the Lions augments his experience of coaching Japan alongside Jones in 2015. He is not be the most natural communicator when it comes to dealing with the media, but there is no denying his effectiveness as a forwards coach.
Gustard’s reputation as a defence coach has also been given a boost by the two-nil series win over Argentina this summer with an experimental England squad. Although the series was high-scoring, and England conceded more tries than Gustard will have been comfortable with, his influence in helping them to victory over a full strength Argentina has many more pluses than minuses.
However, the defence coach who made the biggest impact over the course of the season was Andy Farrell. The former rugby league star finished with a record against the All Blacks of played five, won two, lost two, drawn one. The umbrella defensive rush he employed throughout the Lions series caused New Zealand severe headaches, as did Ireland’s line-speed and chase in their Chicago win.
Although he is now on Ireland’s coaching panel rather than England’s, Farrell has made a strong recovery in the wake of England’s disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign.
Another former England assistant coach to make headway with the Lions in New Zealand this summer was Graham Rowntree, where he worked alongside Borthwick with the forwards. However, Borthwick’s inner sanctum role with England means he is better placed when it comes to pitching for advancement than Rowntree is in his role as Harlequins forwards coach.
Among Premiership coaches there are no credentials – including Baxter’s – which have been burnished more brightly than those of the Saracens crew headed by Mark McCall. The Northern Irishman has proved to be a very astute rugby director whose man-management skills are matched by his tactical acumen. It would be a huge oversight if McCall was not on the radar of Ireland as well as England.
McCall has been assisted by three impressive coaches in Alex Sanderson (forwards and defence), Kevin Sorrell (backs) and Ian Peel (forwards) whose haul of two European Cup titles and one Premiership over the last two seasons speaks for itself.
It is coaches of this calibre – including those who have helped to bring Exeter to the boil like Ali Hepher (backs) and Rob Hunter (forwards) – who could benefit hugely from the six months to a year sabbatical with Super Rugby or even Mitre 10 Cup sides in New Zealand.
The same is true of talented young coaches like Lee Blackett (Wasps), Mark Mapletoft (Harlequins), Sam Vesty (Worcester), Dave Walder (Newcastle), Joe Worsley (Bordeaux) and Alex King (Montpellier).
Unfortunately, while New Zealand rugby is happy to export its coaches in order to broaden their horizons – and their bank balances – the NZRU is much more mean-spirited when it comes to an exchange policy. Its high-performance strategy is to use Super Rugby positions specifically as part of the succession plan for All Black coaching positions.
Steve Tew, the NZRU’s chief executive recently spelled-out just how protectionist it is prepared to be. “Our job is to make sure we look after what is best for the interests of NZ rugby. We have a global responsibility, but it is not our job to develop English coaches… Are we going to be advertising for the next Highlanders coach in England? No.”
Tew’s “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine” attitude could backfire, mainly because protectionism usually leads to counter-protectionism. The reality is that unless there is a fair exchange then overseas coaches – with the Kiwis in the vanguard – could find themselves less sought-after than they have been up to now in Britain and Ireland.
There is also a sizeable segment of coaches in the elite club game Britain and Ireland – especially in the Premiership – whose chances of coaching their national teams has dwindled. Jim Mallinder and Damien West at Northampton come into that category, as do Dean Richards and John Wells at Newcastle. Richard Cockerill, above, now with Edinburgh, is another outsider, as is Sale’s Steve Diamond.
However, in a results-driven game fortunes can change rapidly, with spectacular title-winning runs immediately capable of putting them on the national coach-in-waiting pedestal where Baxter now finds himself.
The RFU has generally been hopeless when it comes to England coach succession planning, and it goes a long way to explaining why they have been nowhere near getting to a World Cup final over the last eight years, let alone winning it.
Having thrown all their eggs in Gatland’s basket since 2008 Wales have fared better, making the 2011 semi-finals, and the quarter-finals in 2015.
Jones and Gatland will be wanting to sign off their respective tenures in style in Japan in two years time – and in both cases that means winning the World Cup. Yet, the real test of their legacies for England and Wales will be not only how much they achieve in that tournament, but how well prepared their successors are to enhance what they inherit.
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