Six Nations breaks new coaching ground
Tradition lies at the heart of the Six Nations and fuels its increasing popularity but there will be one crucial new element in this year’s battle for the northern hemisphere crown.
For the first time in the competition’s long history all of the Home Nations – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – will be led by southern hemisphere coaches.
The Kiwi trio of Wales’ Warren Gatland, Ireland’s Joe Schmidt and Scotland’s Vern Cotter will be joined by Australian coach Eddie Jones who took charge of England at the end of last year.
This is clearly a ringing endorsement of the ability of New Zealand and Australia to produce high quality coaches but is it also a sad reflection of the Home Nations’ failure to produce coaches of a similar standard?
“We simply do not develop them as well as we should,” was the assessment of Sir Ian McGeechan, arguably the most respected and decorated northern hemisphere coach ever, in a recent newspaper column.
It is perhaps England’s failure to identify, nurture and appoint a home grown coach to take charge of the national side that is most alarming.
The Rugby Football Union may be the world’s richest union and be blessed with resources most of the world can only dream of but it does not appear to have an adequate system in place to develop coaching talent to the point it is thought capable of doing the top job.
English rugby is not short of coaching talent and specifically English coaches with proven records of success. For example, Northampton’s Jim Mallinder has tasted Premiership success and Exeter’s Rob Baxter has turned the Chiefs into a major force.
Both have had a taste of the international set-up, Mallinder as coach of the second string Saxons and Baxter as a temporary assistant to former England coach Stuart Lancaster.
Worcester boss Dean Ryan is another who possesses a widely respected coaching brain and has international experience having previously served as an assistant to Scott Johnson during his spell as interim Scotland coach.
But like Mallinder and Baxter, he is clearly not considered ready for the England hotseat – as far as the RFU are concerned.
Jones has opted to draft in English duo Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard to assist him and they will no doubt benefit from the exposure but they are unlikely to be deemed ready to step up in four years’ time given their limited international experience.
The chance to coach the very best players is clearly key to driving the development of coaches in any country and when leading exponents are over looked in favour of overseas talent it calls into question that same process.
By looking outside their own coaching pool, are the Home Nations admitting to their own shortcomings or just looking for a short cut to success? Would the all-conquering All Blacks even consider appointing a non-New Zealander as their coach?
It may appear equally unlikely that South Africa would look outside their own for a head coach but maybe they too are willing to break with tradition?
New Zealand-born John Plumtree is among those reportedly in the mix to succeed Heyneke Meyer and they have recently utilised forwards coach John McFarland, a firm fixture in South African rugby but born in Northern Ireland and raised in England, and scrum coach Pieter de Villiers, who may be a native but got his rugby education in France.
Australia have of course already opened the door to foreign coaches in the form of New Zealander Robbie Deans whose five-year tenure came to an end in 2013.
Current Wallabies boss Michael Cheika may have been born in Sydney but he is well-travelled around the rugby globe and former Argentina stalwart Mario Ledesma is a key member of his support staff.
Perhaps Cheika’s quest for experience offers a lesson for those coaches from the Home Nations looking to make the step up.
A move abroad may be the only option available to an upwardly mobile coach with a limited amount of opportunities within the professional set-up in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
It can broaden your horizon and can clearly expand your knowledge of the game and coaching in general and also maybe open the door to the top job.
Gatland, Schmidt, Jones and Cotter may all originate from south of the equator but they also have something else in common having all embraced coaching challenges outside their comfort zone.
Gatland’s coaching CV includes stops in Ireland and England as well as his native New Zealand. Schmidt coached at provincial level in Ireland and in France including a spell alongside Cotter at Clermont with whom he also worked with in New Zealand. Jones can arguably top them all having coached in England, South Africa and Japan as well as his native Australia.
Which rising stars of the coaching world look likely to benefit from a similar career path?
Current Northampton Saints assistant Alex King is one coach whose stock has risen largely as a result of a successful stint with French side Clermont Auvergne to the extent he had a ‘conversation’ with Jones as he formulated his backroom team.
Former England international Joe Worsley is another gaining experience and knowledge in France as defence coach at Bordeaux-Begles and he is not the only one with Irish duo of Bernard Jackman (Grenoble) and Ronan O’Gara (Racing 92) also among those furthering their education across the Channel.
A never-ending thirst for knowledge will clearly benefit a coach no matter what level at which they operate while equally important for unions looking to build the foundations for ongoing success is a pooling of expertise.
Since England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup a wealth of rugby knowledge – including Sir Clive Woodward, Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton and Martin Johnson – has come and gone as part of an on-going four-year cycle seemingly geared towards winning the sport’s biggest prize.
Would England have been better served by a more coherent succession plan that tapped into their experience, ensured a sharing of knowledge and boosted the development of potential future head coaches?
If they had then maybe they would be reflecting on another outstanding World Cup rather than their worst ever showing.