Just as one dared to believe that English rugby may have turned the corner after the lows of recent months, Leicester, Northampton, Harlequins and Bath all suffered losses in the Heineken Cup last weekend. With the exception of Bath, the English teams were resoundingly beaten. The challenges that face caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster should not be underestimated and these results suggest that the sooner the appointment of a long term coaching team the better for English rugby.
Nick Mallett and Wayne Smith have been widely tipped as the dream team solution to England rugby’s woes. They showed their potential in coaching the Southern Hemisphere team to a convincing victory in the Heroes Rugby Challenge at Twickenham on December 3rd. It might be fair to suggest that such a charity game should not be used as a benchmark for likely success on the international stage, but the coaching duo introduced a sense of purpose and urgency to their team and clearly instilled in the players the significance of the occasion. The result was a group of players who worked well as a team and deserved their convincing win.
Were England to secure the services of these two exceptional coaches, both with extensive playing and coaching experience, then and only then, could one truly say that England had turned the corner. It should also be said that world rugby would be better for a strong England presence in the game.
The performance of last season’s Heineken Cup losing finalists Northampton has been particularly disappointing. In October it looked likely that Jim Mallinder would be the next England coach and Tom Wood was a fair bet as next England captain. The injury time loss to Munster at Thomond Park got their HC campaign off to a bad start, one from which they never recovered. They are now mere bystanders as others fight for places in the last eight of the competition.
In addition, they are currently sitting sixth in the Aviva Premiership and there is talk that Chris Ashton may not have his contract renewed when it expires at the end of the season. If it is true that his agents are upping the financial ante in discussions with Northampton they might need to be a bit careful. While Ashton was joint top try scorer at the RWC, he came home surrounded by controversy and is now sitting out a 4 week ban for hair pulling. One would suggest that it is hardly a strong bargaining position.
Tom Wood may well go on to be England’s next captain but after receiving red and yellow cards on consecutive weekends he will have to be careful. Neither Northampton nor England can afford to have a captain who is anything other than a permanent fixture both in the side and on the field during games.
Vern Cotter, as head coach of Clermont Auvergne, is probably better known these days in Europe than in his native New Zealand. Cotter coached Bay of Plenty for a number of years and assisted Robbie Deans at the Crusaders in 2005-6. Since then Cotter has managed to turn the perennially under-performing Clermont around and has instilled in them the steeliness for which he is known. Progress has been confirmed with Clermont finally winning the Top 10 title in 2010, after three consecutive seasons as runners-up. They have contested the Heineken Cup each year since Cotters arrival and were narrowly losing quarter finalists in 2010.
Clermont’s monumental win over Leicester on Saturday has them sitting on top of Pool 4 ahead of an intriguing return game at Welford Road on Saturday. Cotter will not allow any sense of complacency ahead of a game in which a loss could still see them miss out on the quarter final stages. While Cotter has recently extended his contract with Clermont until the end of the 2014 season there is a clause which would allow him break the contract were he to be offered a job coaching the All Blacks. Cotter would probably not be enticed from his lucrative position in France by an assistant role with the All Blacks.
However, Steve Hansen looks likely to be confirmed before Christmas as the new head coach of the All Blacks, leaving Cotter to continue to ply his trade in France. However, were results not to go Hansen’s way over the next couple of years, it is very possible that Cotter could lead the All Blacks to RWC 2015.
Yury Kushnarev impressed while playing fly-half for Russia in their debut at this year’s RWC. With 46 test appearances for the Bears since his debut in 2005, the 26 year old has firmly established himself in the international side.
Courtesy of the altruism of Melbourne Rebels lock Adam Byrnes, Kushnarev has joined the Rebels training group in Melbourne. It is hoped that he will play a couple of games for the Rebels Rising side during February before returning to Moscow to play for his national side during March and April. Kushnarev is hoping to return to play a season of club rugby in Sydney and, with Byrnes’ help, is currently exploring this option.
Russian players struggle to play in Europe as Russia is not a member of the EU. With Kushnarev leading the way, perhaps there will be opportunities for more of his team mates to play in the southern hemisphere and allow the national team to build on the impressive start they made at this year’s world cup. Credit must go to Byrnes however for his foresight and generosity in allowing this promising Russian to experience the opportunity of a life time.