Is history about to repeat itself? Two Six Nations coaches who had taken their teams to the previous year’s World Cup found themselves looking for a new job within weeks of the end of the 2008 tournament.
Ireland’s Eddie O’Sullivan resigned after a campaign that was almost as downbeat as their World Cup showing, while Brian Ashton’s reward for reaching the final in Paris and leading his side to second in the Six Nations was to be elbowed aside for Martin Johnson.
This year, as in 2008, three of the sides continued with their management teams, the same number as this year. Scotland’s Frank Hadden was sacked in 2009 and replaced by Andy Robinson, who finds himself in need of a victory ahead of Sunday’s visit to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Scotland’s home defeat to England last weekend told a wretchedly familiar tale: a chronic inability to score tries. They were confined to kicks for the 14th time in 25 Tests under Robinson and in their last 11 matches against the old Five Nations countries at Murrayfield in the championship they have created just one try.
The outside-half Dan Parks, who had intended to retire from international rugby after the World Cup only to be coaxed into staying on by Robinson for at least two matches because his likely successor, Ruaridh Jackson, was injured, said he had had enough after an ineffective performance that drew widespread criticism.
Parks’s tactical kicking was surprisingly wayward against England and he stood too deep to attack the line. Despite ample possession, Scotland’s backs rarely threatened and while it was Parks who announced his retirement from international rugby, he did so after being told by Robinson that his time had come.
Robinson lasted two years as England’s head coach. The Rugby Football Union rated him as a tactician and a motivator, but grew so exasperated by his selection policy, in particular what it saw as a tendency for him to react angrily to a defeat or a poor performance by a player, making changes without counting to 10, that it asked him to lay out in writing the reasons for any team changes.
Selection is again at the core of Robinson’s problems. Scotland supporters were unimpressed that he did not partner Parks’s replacement, Greig Laidlaw, with his Edinburgh scrum-half, Mike Blair, against Wales, nor is there acclaim for his persistence with Sean Lamont, a wing by preference, in the centre.
Robinson is an angry coach, as he shows when the camera turns to him during games. He reacts indignantly when questioned immediately after matches by the media, initial attempts to be gracious invariably collapsing under the weight of frustration.
Robinson will come under pressure if Scotland lose in Cardiff, even though they have not won more than one match in a Six Nations campaign since 2006. A reign that started promisingly has come to resemble Scottish rugby itself, more showers than sunny intervals, but it is hardly clear where sacking him would take the Scottish Rugby Union.
His position needs bolstering, and Scott Johnson will become chief assistant coach in May. Selection should not be such a vexed issue for Robinson, considering Scotland’s strength in depth does not rival England’s, but he remains someone who takes defeat personally.
Ireland’s Declan Kidney could also do with a victory. Ireland blew a six-point lead in the final five minutes against Wales last Sunday, something Leinster and Munster do not do in the Heineken Cup. At the very point when you expected the Irish to prevail over opponents who had over the years made a habit of losing tight games, weakened Wales clambered off the ropes and found a left-right combination. Both sides, strangely, were the reverse of their Heineken Cup sides.
Ireland won the Grand Slam in Kidney’s first season, 2009, but their form has wavered since. While Leinster and Munster are consistent, Ireland are up and down, as last year showed: they were mediocre in the Six Nations before meeting grand slam chasing England in the final round and they were poor in four World Cup warm-ups in August, yet they changed the axis the World Cup titled on by beating Australia.
They are missing Brian O’Driscoll, but Wales were without half their pack and their captain Sam Warburton missed the second-half. Ireland seem to prefer the brake to the accelerator and they are slow to react tactically: they kept kicking the ball to a team that was comfortable in possession. A trip to Paris is not what Kidney would have chosen this weekend; he needs to give his players the freedom Wales are enjoying under a former Ireland coach, Warren Gatland.