my kingdom for a coach …


There are just seventy-nine Pygmy Three-Toed Sloths left on the planet. They live, as I understand it, on an island off Panama, which sounds idyllic save for the obvious fact they’re dropping dead on a daily basis. Even paradise has its drawbacks. The Cuban Greater Funnel-Eared Bat, I read, is also down to double figures, the Javan Rhino is fast going the way of the Hairy-Nosed Wombat and – alas – the Stubfoot Toad is rarer than a round rectangle.

None though is quite as catastrophically endangered as the Indigenous Northern Hemisphere Rugby Union Head Coach: indeed in Wales, with the demise of the Ospreys’ Steve Tandy, the species is now extinct. Scotland has only one left in captivity – Gregor Townsend – Ireland is down to just Leo Cullen – coachicus longus – and come the start of next season a dozen Aviva Premiership clubs will – in all probability – boast a mere four English Head Coaches. And I don’t think we can blame the loss of ‘Genial’ Jim Mallinder on habitat fragmentation or deforestation.

It’s hard to fathom that a country that produced Carwyn James has no professional Head Coach left either regionally or internationally, no disrespect to Jason Strange at the Wales U20s. Steve Tandy’s sacking is a somewhat contentious one. Yes, results have been bloody awful but the Ospreys seemed to be turning a small corner. Had they won in Clermont and qualified for the last eight of the Champions’ Cup would Steve have been fired? Where was his budget? How long was his injury list? And why did the board back him for three years last August and sack him this January? One or other of those decisions is a serious balls-up and neither reflects too cleverly on the quality of the joined-up thinking in the Ospreys’ Executive Washroom. Maybe – perish the thought – the wrong man is leaving Llandarcy.

Instead, of course, Chief Executive Andrew Millward, will now be leading a worldwide scour for someone who isn’t Welsh to take over. ‘Of course we still want to develop coaches,’ he says. ‘But it’s also important to be realistic. We are looking for an experienced Head Coach who is world-class at what he does. Those kinds of guys are not easy to come by and we don’t have that depth of coach in Wales. If we did, we’d have a Welsh coach in charge of the national team.’

We’ll come back to that ticklish subject a bit later but, for now, cross out ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’ and put in ‘England’ and ‘English’ and – virtually word for word – you’ll be reading the statement Northampton’s Chief Executive, Mark Darbon, put out following the execution of Jim Mallinder. These things are becoming depressingly formulaic.

Mallinder’s passing – you suspect – was an agony; Northampton is a fiercely loyal rugby club and casting off its longest-serving, its most successful and its – universally – well-liked Head Coach would have been utterly miserable. ‘It was heartbreaking’, club President, Keith Barwell told ‘The Rugby Paper’. ‘My wife cried and I shed a tear … we wanted to bring in someone to assist Jim but that was a stumbling block – he was not happy with it … [yet as] … one of the directors said to me, ‘Jim looks a broken man’ … it needed freshening up.’

But even then you suspect what truly did for Jim Mallinder wasn’t the Board but the supporters. ‘Chairmen don’t sack managers; fans do,’ said Tommy Docherty once upon a time, a truism that extends beyond soccer in the Seventies and all the way to Franklin’s Gardens. Financially, the Saints made a rare loss last season, they’ll – likely – make another this season and a half full stadium for the Ospreys game – together with the silent, seething second half exodus – would’ve been the last straw for the Board. Even loyalty has a bottom line.

And, of course these days, the football-esque contagion continues in the aftermath. A Premiership coach is fired and the hot favourite to replace him is the last Premiership coach to be fired; thus is Jim Mallinder buried and Mike Ford immediately anointed as the frontrunner for his job. It’s that – yawn – Allardyce, Hodgson, Pardew merry-go-round, where one gets sacked and the other two take it in turns to replace him. Crystal Palace, god help them, have now had all three.

But much as you’d like to damn the media for our unimaginative obsession with the bleedin’ obvious, the evidence suggests that the clubs aren’t much better. We need someone ‘experienced and world-class’, they chorus when what they mean, of course, is someone old and foreign.

I don’t know how ambitious the likes of Sam Vesty, Alex Sanderson, Paul Gustard, Ben Ryan, Steve Borthwick, Ali Hepher, Lee Blackett, Ian Peel, Alan Dickens, Alex King, Mark Mapletoft, Paul Deacon, Kevin Sorrell and Trevor Woodman are but if any of this bevy of upcoming, young, English coaching talent is hoping to get their hands on a Head Coach’s Hat, they’ll need the patience of Job. Worcester Warriors recently lost Gary Gold to La-La Land and replaced him with sixty-seven-year-old Alan Solomons, a well-liked South African but whose ratio of trophies won/clubs coached makes him – forgive me – a prime candidate to be the next manager of Crystal Palace.

CEOs, frankly, should stop bemoaning the lack of indigenous talent and instead start demonstrating some nous, intelligence and balls; namely find, develop, nurture and promote young coaches of their own. They do it with players. Why not with coaches? Bordeaux-Begles, for example, recently lost sixty-four-year-old Jacques Brunel to France and appointed their thirty-two-year-old English backs coach, Rory Teague, as Head Honcho. Name me an English club who’d have the audacity to do that. Okay, London Irish. Now name me another one. Precisely.

And to what extent do clubs look after their Head Coaches? Do they just appoint them, set them the tightest budget they can get away with and let them get on with it or do they offer them some pastoral care? How for example, does a Head Coach as talented as Jim Mallinder go from being a hot horse in the England Head Coach Handicap Hurdle in both 2011 and 2015 to being a pot of glue in 2017? He’s a first-rate tracksuit. He has a trophy cabinet to prove it. What the hell happened and, whatever it was, why was it allowed to happen?

If I was crap at my job – yes, okay, very funny, if I was even crapper at my job than I normally am, thanks for that – I’d expect someone in the office to step in and give me a hand addressing my shortcomings. Does this happen at the sharp end of rugby clubs? Is there, indeed, anyone with the skill-set to help a Head Coach who’s gone stale/off the boil/out of his mind? Or are these people just considered disposable? ‘Bugger me, Pardew’s lost it and started nutting the other team’s players; someone give Allardyce a call. What? England? Are you serious? Well, call Hodgson, then. They can’t both be at Lancaster Gate.’ hates to keep banging on about Exeter Chiefs – that’s obviously a white lie; loves banging on about the Exeter Chiefs – but much of their burgeoning success is built on the enduring relationship between the Romulus and Remus of the club, Chairman and CEO Tony Rowe and Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter. ‘It’s a bit of a marriage, I suppose,’ says Rowe. ‘And I think we really understand each other, as you’d expect after twenty years. We just get on with it. We don’t speak every day but, when we need to, we sit down and chat. He’s a good man. You break him in half and there’s Exeter running right through him like a stick of rock. I suppose I’m the same, except I’m harder to snap. I’m a bit fatter than him. And a lot noisier.’

The point being that each keeps the other on point. And how often, you wonder, does that happen elsewhere? It’d be hard to imagine Rob Baxter losing his marbles – full stop – but harder still to imagine Tony Rowe not noticing and not stepping in to help him find them. For umpteen years their offices in the bowels of Sandy Park were twelve feet apart and later this year, I’m told, Baxter will be given a seat on the Board. The two of them are blood brothers.

So in much the same way that the World Wildlife Fund is urgently tackling the issue of the vanishing Mississippi Gopher Frog so the Home Unions – all of them – need to address this indigenous coaching issue and start thinking straight. The RFU – bless them – have done the one but not the other by extending Eddie and asking him to take his successor under his wing for his last season. At a glance all this sounds like a sensible, seductive piece of succession planning but, if you actually sit down and sift it, it’s nonsense on stilts.

For a start – Mrs. Jones aside – Eddie doesn’t appear to do long-term relationships. Secondly, who’s to say he’ll want the same man the RFU will want or that the two will be happy working together for a year? Besides, one Alpha Male in the troop is enough – more than enough if you burn people as quickly as Eddie – so how’s two supposed to work? And do the players try to please the coach who’s about to go or the one who’s staying for the next two years? How mixed are the messages likely to get? It’s bonkers. You either keep Jones until 2023 or, alternatively, you give the new guy four full years and leave Eddie to do what he always said he was going to do which is to retreat to the West Indies with a cold one and soak up some cricket.

Wales too have been thinking beyond the box and come up with an equally depressing scenario; namely, a shortlist of three Kiwis to replace a Kiwi, which is where we start to get to the guts of the issue. No disrespect to Gatland, Jones, Schmidt, O’Shea et al but international rugby is – by definition – nation against nation and if that applies to players it should apply to coaches too. Otherwise why do we bother with flags and anthems? Indeed, one of the many reasons to love Wayne Smith is that he refused umpteen offers to coach other international sides because he said he wouldn’t and couldn’t stand up and sing someone else’s song in front of the All Blacks. Not many – alas – share that noble view.

And, of course, what this miserable coaching loophole does is to allow unions – and clubs – to buy foreign and thereby absolve themselves of the responsibility to cultivate, grow and nurture their own. The British government once followed much the same policy with the British car industry which is why – classic marques aside such as a Baxter or a Richards – that same British car industry went to the wall and the world now drives an Ackermann, an O’Connor or a Gatland. Ah, if only everything in life was as reliable as a Rennie.

In fairness, the unions are creating pathways for some of their younger coaches. The RFU has a Coach Development Programme with the Premiership wherein Anthony Allen, Richard Blaze and James Ponton will spend eighteen months coaching the England U20s, this latest trio replacing Louis Deacon, Tom Williams and Ian Vass, the last of whom has now moved on to Montpellier. And Anthony Allen, Toby Flood tells me, is going to be coaching mustard. You heard it here first. Okay, second.

But Ian Vass is the one with the right idea; indeed were I a young, ambitious coach from these islands I’d be heading for the likes of Montpellier too; certainly abroad. Ronan O’Gara, let’s not forget, is quietly lapping the world and broadening his horizons; Racing ’92 and now the Crusaders. By the time he finally gets back to Ireland, his CV will be unimpeachable and he’ll look and feel like a foreigner, which – as discussed – is now the requisite criterion for landing any coaching job anywhere on these shores.

But if World Rugby genuinely wants to save The Indigenous Head Coach – and not just in Britain and Ireland – they should insist on Head Honchos abiding by exactly the same principles as the players they coach; namely, you qualify by residency or citizenship but once you’ve hung your hat on Ireland or wherever, that’s it. So if CJ Stander can’t head home to play for the ‘Boks once he’s finished wearing a shamrock, then Joe Schmidt can no longer turn tail to coach the Blacks. Simples.

Morally that’s the right thing to do – assuming we’re serious about the integrity of international sport – and, practically, it’s the right thing to do to encourage the development of young coaches. Because if the Kiwi coach cop-out is no longer available, minds will hopefully focus a little harder on an internal line of succession and a raft of talented young coaches might find people suddenly paying them the attention they deserve.

Or look at it this way. Of the current Head Coaches in the Premiership and the Pro14, the only ones who’ve been promoted from within are Mark McCall, Rob Baxter, Leo Cullen, Steve Diamond and Dave Walder and none of these (a) has done too badly (b) is doing too badly or (c) looks likely to start doing too badly in the near future.

And even if winning’s your be all and end all – myopia at any level of sport – why would you want to buy in from abroad? Not one foreign coach has ever won a World Cup nor, indeed, reached a final. Nothing – ever – beats home cooking.

26 JANUARY 2018


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