Good luck to Ian Richie as he takes the helm at the RFU this week. One of his first tasks will be to oversee the selection of England Head Coach. It would appear to be a two horse race between Stuart Lancaster and Nick Mallett as a number of other candidates have ruled themselves out.
Lancaster has restored order to the unruly mob who holidayed in New Zealand in September & October. He has restored old style values such as respect, commitment and hard graft and has expunged some less desirable influences from the elite player group. John Major would have described the campaign as “back to basics". It is as much about reconnecting with the disillusioned English rugby public as it is getting results, though the two are inextricably linked. It was also about rescuing potentially at risk commercial sponsorships.
Hard fought wins against Italy and Scotland were celebrated not necessarily for the quality of their execution but on the basis that “a win’s a win”. There were positives taken from the game against Wales at Twickenham though the loss was ultimately gut-wrenching for English players and supporters alike.
A recently signed four year sponsorship deal with mobile phone operator O2, estimated to be worth £25-30m, suggests that the new regime is offering succour to commercial partners.
For all Lancaster’s good qualities and impressive clarity of thought he does not yet have the experience required for the position. The early wins over Scotland and Italy were against teams ranked 11th and 12th in the world.
Mallett was South Africa head coach from 1997-2000 during which time the Springboks recorded a seventeen game winning streak. His four year tenure as head coach saw Stade Francais win the French club championship in 2003 & 2004. The most notable achievement by Italy under Mallet was the defeat of France in the 2011 6 Nations.
He also achieved as a player representing Oxford in the 1980 Varsity match, winning 4 Currie Cups with Western Province and representing the Springboks on two occasions.
Mallett is a strong personality and experienced with the off pitch responsibilities that come with the job of head coach. He is widely known and respected amongst the global rugby community.
Critics of Mallett will note that Italy slipped from 11th to 12th in the IRB rankings during his time as head coach. While this is indisputable, few would argue that Italy have become greatly more competitive opposition during this time.
Some will demand that the RFU should not appoint a foreigner as head coach. The pedants will note that Mallett was in fact born in Hertfordshire, though moved with his family to Rhodesia at 6 weeks old! This should not influence the decision as England needs the best man for the job.
The RFU claim that rugby union is the fastest growing sport in England, so as hosts of RWC 2015 and with Rugby Sevens an Olympic sport from 2016, a lot is at stake. England are now 6th in the IRB world rankings and will have to be in the top four by the end of this year if they are to be a seeded team for RWC 2015.
Stuart Lancaster has started the rebuilding of England and has proved highly effective thus far but has a mere three test matches under his belt. If England is to launch a serious challenge for world cup glory in 2015 then time is of the essence. The RFU don’t have the luxury of allowing a coach to learn his trade at this level. Mallett is experienced, proven and available and is the man best equipped to lead England back to the Promised Land.