IT is said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and it explains why a Springbok scrum coach is at the top of Eddie Jones’ shopping list with the 2020 Six Nations imminent.
Not far behind is the necessity for an attack coach to fill the sizeable boots of Scott Wisemantel, who has returned to Australia to help out the Wallabies.
One of the mantras that international coaches ignore at their peril is that the best way to proceed in terms of international selection is to build from the front to the back – as in getting your forward platform right first, starting with the front row – rather than from back to front.
The latter method usually involves selecting exciting backs who are starved of good ball because the lightweight, mobile pack in front of them are smashed to bits.
Matt Proudfoot – scrum coach
South Africa certainly use the front to back method, so it is easy to see why the scrum coach said to be in England’s sights is the Springboks’ 2019 World Cup winner, Matt Proudfoot.
Proudfoot presided over the mangling of the England scrum that gave South Africa the momentum for their emphatic 20-point World Cup final victory last month.
Proudfoot, who was born and raised in South Africa, and won four caps for Scotland (1998-2003) through the granddad formula, has become hot property after the wrecking job on Jones’ scrum. This includes the accolade of having nurtured chief protagonists like Springbok tight-heads Frans Malherbe and Vincent Koch, loose-head Steven Kitshoff, and hooker Mbongi Mbanambi when he was forwards coach at the Stormers under Rassie Erasmus.
Pieter de Villiers – scrum coach
However, Proudfoot is not the only Springbok scrum coach who is recently out of contract. The other notable name is Pieter de Villiers, the South African-born tight-head who won 69 caps for France from 1999-2007, and then went on to coach the South African pack from 2012 to the 2015 World Cup.
De Villiers was reappointed by Erasmus when he became South Africa coach, but left to return to French club rugby as Stade Francais forwards coach alongside former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer in 2018 – before that came to an end last month when they lost their jobs at the Parisian outfit.
Both Proudfoot and De Villiers are 47, and are seasoned scrum coaches with proven track-records.
In Proudfoot’s case there is little doubt that he was assisted in dismantling the England scrum through the Trojan horse influence of having two Saracens front row forwards, veteran hooker Schalk Brits and Koch, embedded in the 2019 Springbok World Cup squad.
Crucially, Brits and Koch had the inside track on the scrummaging strengths and soft spots of not only team-mates like Mako Vunipola and Jamie George, but also English front row forwards they played against regularly, like Kyle Sinckler and Dan Cole.
Brits is a smart operator, and the way South Africa went after the England scrum in the final was the logical extension of the pressure heaped on Vunipola, George and Sinckler during England’s 2018 three-Test summer tour. This followed Erasmus bringing Brits into the Springbok fold, and persuading him not to retire before the World Cup.
The England front row named above were under pressure throughout the first two Test defeats, even conceding a scrum penalty try in Bloemfontein, so there is very little wriggle room for Jones to claim that he had been given no warning that South Africa would launch a scrum offensive in the final.
It is possible that had England not lost Sinckler in the opening couple of minutes with concussion that they might have weathered the storm better than they did when his veteran replacement, Dan Cole, took over the anchor role.
However, while Cole was only accustomed to coming off the bench with 20 to 30 minutes to go, it is a near certainty that Sinckler would have been targeted by the Springboks in exactly the same way that Vunipola, George and Cole were – and the outcome would not have been much different.
The flip-side of this English genuflection to South African scrum know-how is that players like Brits and Koch made big gains as scrummagers during their time at Saracens.
Over the club’s highly successful last five years the main forward coaching influences have been English, in the shape of Alex Sanderson and scrum coach Ian Peel.
Alex Sanderson – forwards coach
Saracens have had the best scrum in English club rugby, and one of the most effective in Europe, while also providing many of the key tight forwards for Jones. This makes the idea of South Africa knowing how to unsettle them all the more plausible – although my hunch is that Sanderson or Peel would have been much better primed to repel the Springboks than Jones, or his scrum coach, Neal Hatley, were.
Sanderson has developed into a very impressive forwards all-rounder, with an expertise which covers the set-piece as well as the breakdown, and he and Peel have plenty of experience now at elite level.
The impediments to Jones raiding the Saracens coaching dug-out again, is that John Mitchell, who is contracted to England until 2021, covers the same bases as Sanderson as a forwards/ defence expert.
It is also unlikely that Sanderson or Peel would be prepared to leave Saracens in the lurch during a season in which they are in a fight for Premiership survival following their 35-point salary cap penalty.
Richard Cockerill – forwards coach
Of the other English candidates for scrum/forwards coach the most intriguing is Richard Cockerill. Jones was a regular visitor to see ‘Cockers’ when he was at Leicester in the early part of the Aussie’s Red Rose tenure, because there is a friendship between them stretching back to Jones’ brief sojourn at Welford Road as a player.
Fast Eddie could rely on Cockerill to do a good job as a scrum coach given the amount of time he spent at the coalface as part of the Tigers ‘ABC club’, and the former England hooker has the upbeat personality to be an energiser within the camp.
Cockerill is also capable of shouldering some of the ‘media pressure’ that Jones frequently mentions, even though, so far, there have been few signs of the England head coach wanting to duck out of the limelight.
Cockerill’s contract extension with Edinburgh, which is due to end in April 2021 might preclude an RFU approach, as might the Midlander’s desire to be an assistant coach at international level, rather than run his own show in Scotland.
However, if Cockerill’s ambitions are to become a head coach in the Test arena it would be the next logical step to take. Not only that, but he will be in elite company alongside Mitchell, who was New Zealand head coach for three years from 2000-2003.
Graham Rowntree, the former England forwards/scrum coach under Stuart Lancaster, will be on the outer rim of the RFU’s radar, because, having left Harlequins, he has just joined Munster after working for Georgia during the World Cup.
The list of promising attack coaches at Premiership clubs includes Sam Vesty at Northampton – although it is still too early in the script for him – while Rory Teague, who is back at Gloucester as skills coach, has already had one dance with Jones, which ended with them out of step.
Alex King, who is at Montpellier after his stint at Northampton turned sour, has a reputation for thinking out of the box, but because he is on the other side of The Channel his handiwork is less visible.
Jones also has the option of looking for an Antipodean replacement for Wisemantel. One of those is resident just over the road from Twickenham at Harlequins, where former All Black fly-half Nick Evans is starting to make his counter-attacking influence count.
Fast Eddie could also contemplate sounding out some of the Kiwi coaches who have already dipped their feet in Premiership waters before heading back to New Zealand.
These include Tabai Matson, above, the Waikato Chiefs backs coach who helped to shape the scintillating Fijian attack at the World Cup. Matson’s year-long stint at Bath came to a halt in 2017 due to family matters, but the former Crusaders wing might be tempted back by a big bucks offer from the RFU.
The same applies to Aaron Mauger and Scott Hansen, the former Crusaders duo shown the door by Leicester. Both have been rehabilitated in New Zealand. Mauger is head coach at the Highlanders, where Tony Brown, the Japan attack coach, is an assistant, while Hansen has rejoined Scott Robertson at the Crusaders.
As Jones sifts through what is an extensive roll-call of credentials, he should be reminded by the RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney that where the English candidates are as strong as those from overseas he should back the homegrown men.
It is also important that Jones prioritises those scrum and attack coaches who are first and foremost good selectors in their own right, and who have strong enough voices to challenge his selections. This is because, as we saw in the World Cup final, especially in the front row, but also in the backline, he does not always get it right.