The Welsh Rugby Union’s recent decision to hand Warren Gatland a new six-year deal would appear good business given his status as one of the world’s leading coaches and his impressive CV that was most recently punctuated by the British & Irish Lions’ victory over Australia. But as extensive his list of achievements, could the coaching stability provided by his re-appointment be just as vital in terms of success on the biggest stage – the Rugby World Cup?
Gatland wasted little time in breathing life back into Welsh rugby having taken charge in the wake of their disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign. A Six Nations Grand Slam in his first season has since been followed by two more northern hemisphere titles including another clean sweep while they also reached the semi-finals of the 2011 World Cup. But as dominant as they have been in Europe’s premier competition they have struggled against the world’s best – New Zealand, South Africa and Australia – with just one win from 23 starts.
Is an undoubtedly talented Welsh squad guilty of under-performing? Would another coach be able to bring fresh ideas and inspire even greater things from them? Despite the lack of success against the southern hemisphere giants, the WRU have clearly seen enough to convince them that Gatland, already Wales’ longest serving coach in terms of Test matches, provides them with the best chance to take the next step on the sport’s biggest stage and such loyalty has often been rewarded in the past.
Sir Clive Woodward was one of those to benefit from such an approach as he attempted to re-vamp the England set-up at the dawn of professionalism. He was handed the top job by the Rugby Football Union in 1997 and would endure the ‘tour of hell’ the following year that included a record 76-0 drubbing at the hands of Australia and an equally painful 64-22 loss to New Zealand.
Woodward survived the fall out and famously insisted that he be judged on his side’s results at the World Cup two years later. But a disappointingly one-sided quarter-final exit at the hands of South Africa invited further pressure and speculation regarding his future in the role. The RFU opted to retain his services and Woodward’s free-thinking approach laid the foundation for a period of dominance that included a Six Nations Grand Slam and more memorably a World Cup triumph in 2003.
While England were hitting unprecedented heights in Australia a decade ago, South Africa struggled in the wake of their controversial ‘Staaldraad’ World Cup training camp. A change of coach following he tournament saw Jake White step up in 2004 and he inspired immediate success with the Boks claiming the Tri-Nations crown for only the second time. But his fortunes would change within a couple of years both on an off the field with a crushing 49-0 defeat to Australia and political turmoil threatening his position and South Africa’s World Cup hopes. White rode out the storm and retained the support of the South African Rugby Union whose faith was rewarded when he guided the Boks to the World Cup crown in 2007.
South Africa’s old rivals New Zealand did not fair so well at that tournament with France claiming a shock quarter-final win that condemned the All Blacks to their worst ever performance at a World Cup. Graham Henry, who had stepped into arguably the hottest coaching seat in Test rugby in 2004 and steered his side to a hat-trick of Tri-Nations titles, was singled out for criticism for his decision to rest players ahead of the tournament and his selection policy. Many tipped the success-laden Crusaders coach Robbie Deans as a replacement but once again a leading union opted to temper their reaction with player support also key in Henry’s re-appointment for an initial two-year period.
With the support of the New Zealand Rugby Union, Henry then had to win a proud rugby nation over once again and he did so with yet further Tri-Nations success earning him another contract extension that would of course culminate with their second World Cup triumph on home soil in 2011.
Such gambles are not the exclusive preserve of Test match rugby with the other forms of the game having also provided examples of how coaching stability can inspire enviable success. Few coaches can rival the record of Toulouse’s long-serving boss Guy Noves who has been at the French giants’ helm since 1993 and has orchestrated their dominance of the European club rugby landscape in the years that have followed. Club president Jean-René Bouscatel has understandably seen no reason to change a winning formula with Noves having steered his side to a remarkable nine French championships and four Heineken Cup titles.
The Sevens game provides another prime example of how continuity can pay rich dividends. Gordon Tietjens has spearheaded New Zealand 7s rugby since 1994 and been the central figure in an amazing run of success that has brought 11 World Sevens Series titles, all four Commonwealth Games gold medals and two Rugby World Cup Sevens victories. Unsurprisingly his latest contract will ensure he leads the side into the latest Commonwealth Games battle in Glasgow later this year and also the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.
But how long should a coach be given to prove his worth? Should Gatland see out his latest deal, that is set to incorporate the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, he will become the longest serving national coach of all-time – a stint spanning 12 years – although results will ultimately decide if Gatland survives that long and can add his name to those coaches to have tasted World Cup success.
Clearly there are other factors that contribute to a side’s success most notably the talent within the playing squad and there are no guarantees even the most decorated of coaches can conjure a winning blend. But surely there is enough evidence in the professional rugby sphere to convince powerbrokers in other sports, most notably football, that time, patience and understanding are just as pivotal as personnel?
Time in charge before winning Rugby World Cup:
Sir Brian Lochore (New Zealand, 1987) – 2 years
Bob Dwyer (Australia, 1991) – 3 years
Kitch Christie (South Africa, 1995) – 8 months
Rod Macqueen (Australia, 1999) – 2 years
Sir Clive Woodward (England, 2003) – 6 years
Jake White (South Africa, 2007) – 3 years
Sir Graham Henry (New Zealand, 2011) – 7 years
Is this a typical ‘chicken and egg’ situation or can putting faith in a coach, long-term, itself help to deliver success on the field? Comments below…