hunch time

WHO, EXACTLY, IS GOING TO BE THE NEW ENGLAND HEAD COACH? RIGHT NOW, IT SEEMS TO BE AS CLEAR AS MUD.

Spare me all this Jake White nonsense, will you? Eddie Jones? Are you serious? And can we please not hear any more about heading back to the future with Sir Clive? Wednesday will follow Thursday before the RFU invites the White Knight through the drawbridge at Camelot. As they say over the pond in that refreshingly blunt way of theirs, enough already.

So what will Ian Ritchie do following the decree nisi with Stuart Lancaster? Well, what he should do is glue together two parking spaces in the West car park at Twickenham and invite Devon’s most famous farmer, Rob Baxter, to park his tractor in it. Why Baxter? Well, firstly, because he’s the best English coach in the Premiership and secondly because he’s the best English coach in the Premiership. What other reasons do you need? The Welsh, the Scots and the Irish fly flags of convenience in the boot room but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to cheat too. This is Test rugby, isn’t it? Our anthem against your anthem? Isn’t that the point? Good, so let’s at least have someone who not only knows the words but who’s prepared to sing them, ideally from the heart.

Except – of course – that Rob’s as loyal as a Labrador and, unlike Schubert, won’t leave his Exeter Symphony unfinished; that’s even assuming the aforementioned tractor has enough grunt to plough through the roadblocks that the Chiefs’ CEO, Tony Rowe, will be nailing across the lower reaches of the M5 as we speak. So maybe Rob’s the job for, say, 2019; in which case what does the RFU do in the here and now?

Well, for what it’s worth, I have a hunch, a hunch – let’s not forget – being ‘an unqualified feeling or guess based on intuition rather than fact and not necessarily a point of view that signifies a deeply held, personal belief or desire’. Forgive the small print but if the RFU appoints ‘Jumpin’’ Jake White first thing tomorrow morning, I don’t want people pointing at me in the street and laughing. I get enough of that already.

Okay, here goes ‘The Hunch’. Sometime in the next few days, the RFU will rustle up a prestige vehicle – I’m guessing, given that the Mensch from Munich sponsor the team, it’ll be a BMW 7 series or similar – they’ll stick Lawrence Dallaglio in the back seat next to a big, blank cheque, they’ll chauffeur him over the Severn Estuary and they’ll tell him not to come back without Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards. Obviously – aside from the big, blank cheque – they’ll need to stump up an extra £6.50 to get Lawrence over the bridge but if England’s purest patriot – the most iron-willed purveyor of fire and brimstone that ever drew breath in a dressing room – can’t persuade his old muckers from Wasps to take the English shilling, no one can.

Gatland and Edwards? Well, look at it from the RFU’s point of view. Hansen and Henry are non-starters, White and Mallett aren’t quite as vogue as they were four years ago – I’m trying to be polite – Schmidt didn’t exactly have a stellar World Cup and – besides -has just taken out Irish citizenship, Cheika – unquestionably – DID have a stellar World Cup but gives every appearance of wearing green and gold boxer shorts and Eddie Jones’s vowels might prove a little too long for the RFU Management Board. Frankly, Jones and Ritchie would make for an even Odder Couple than Matthau and Lemmon.

None of this suggests Gatland’s the last biscuit in the tin, which – incidentally – was Mrs. Wife’s caustic reply when I once asked her why she’d decided to marry me. On the contrary, while he may not be English, he’s as close as the RFU’ll get given his time at Wasps; what’s more he has gravitas, a track record and, very possibly, an Oyster Card. Yes, he’ll cost a bob or six – transfer fee, stipend, the odd flight in Premium Economy to his dacha in the Bay of Islands – but they’ve got to spend that World Cup profit on something. Plus Shaun Edwards, who’s as English as a pork pie, is still – intriguingly – out of contract, so what you fork out on the jacket you save on the trousers and, hey presto, you have a fully worsted suit that’ll wear in all weathers.

Okay, so what about the view from Warren Gatland’s side of the equation? Well, yes, he’s verbally agreed to stay put in Cardiff but, as Sam Goldwyn once said, a verbal agreement’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Might he think he’s taken the Welsh team as far as he can? Might he – perhaps – be having second thoughts on a third term? Might he be thinking that England – rock bottom England but with buckets of potential, unplumbed depths of talent and limitless resources – would be a better bet to land a World Cup before he heads back to New Zealand in 2019? Might his ears not prick up at Ian Ritchie’s remarkably candid comment that ‘money is no object’? Might he even be thinking ‘Sir’ Warren Gatland? It has a ring to it.

The Lions? Well, given the disparity between Gatland’s market value and England’s, he’d never be in a better position to negotiate an opt-out clause for 2017, should he fancy one. What’s more he’d get to play every home game in his lucky stadium where he’s won Premierships and a Heineken Cup. Trust me, this kind of minor detail nags away at you even when you’re considering the supposedly weightier parts of the deal.

Look, personally, I’m all for sending a snatch squad and stealing Rob Baxter in the dead of night: I’m thinking an amphibious assault on the south Devon coast, ashore – like William of Orange – at Brixham, overland from there in arrowhead formation, a tranquilliser dart, an Apache helicopter and back to London for a lunch-time news conference, once Rob’s slept off the tranquilliser. Mrs. Baxter will understand.

But, given all that looks a bit desperate and runs the risk of prompting criminal proceedings, Gatland and Edwards is the best guess surmise, albeit this from a blog that gave you France to win the World Cup and, as a sheepish afterthought, Australia to win the final. Then again, even a blind pig finds a truffle occasionally, so if you do happen to spot Lawrence Dallaglio at Cardiff Gate Services on the M4 anytime in the next few days, remember, you heard it here first.

10 NOVEMBER 2015

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