Nick Westby: English coaches deserve chance to lay claim

Jim Mallinder, the Northampton head coach looks on prior to the Heineken Cup Final match between Leinster and Northampton Saints at the Millennium Stadium on May 21, 2011, in Cardiff, Wales. (Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Jim Mallinder, the Northampton head coach looks on prior to the Heineken Cup Final match between Leinster and Northampton Saints at the Millennium Stadium on May 21, 2011, in Cardiff, Wales. (Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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If there was ambiguity in the way Stuart Lancaster’s departure was handled by the Rugby Football Union, then there appeared only clarity in the credentials sought in his successor.

“Proven international experience,” proclaimed RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie on Wednesday afternoon, before adding “it is not a matter of finances”, as the process of moving on from a disastrous World Cup began.

Such bombast followed the not-so shock revelation that Lancaster had “stood down by mutual consent”, before Ritchie later went on to express that it was a decision met with a “unanimous endorsement” by the RFU board.

Therein lies the ambiguity. So Lancaster resigned but would have been sacked anyway, with the departure couched in the convenient modern-day terms of “mutual consent”.

Whatever the outcome, it was not handled well enough, and a decision should have been reached a lot quicker than 38 days after a defeat to Australia which eliminated Lancaster’s England and rid an otherwise absorbing World Cup of its host nation.

Moving forward, at least the RFU is clear in what it seeks.

How quickly the coaches with “proven international experience” have been lined up.

Michael Cheika, Eddie Jones, Jake White, Nick Mallett and Warren Gatland – to name a few.

But haven’t we been here before? Many times, in fact. This is the third time White has been linked with the post, so exasperated is he with the RFU’s selection process that in reiterating his interest again this week he added the caveat that he cannot be bothered to apply. They have my number.

Jones has been linked before, while four years ago, Mallett was the outstanding international candidate before a little-known Lancaster raised his hand and said ‘why don’t you give a young Englishman a chance?’

Why not do so again? Because Lancaster’s ultimate failure should not muddy the waters for English coaches going forward.

Ritchie and the RFU ought not to focus solely on the creditable merits of international coaches with ‘proven experience’.

Just because Lancaster did not get it right when it mattered most, does not mean another English coach or a shrewd operator currently plying his trade in the Premiership, will also fall short on the biggest stage.

Lancaster did a lot of good for English rugby. He succeeded in reconnecting the national team with its fanbase and grassroots rugby, and vice-versa. He made players humbled by the shirt, and restored pride from the Twickenham terraces after the public fallout from the 2011 World Cup campaign.

He blooded a host of young players who may still succeed with England, and in that, Lancaster’s legacy may not be fulfilled until 2019 or even beyond.

The bungling of Sam Burgess – hardly blameless himself after admitting this week ‘his heart wasn’t in it’ – the occasional muddling of tactics and the inability to win the big matches, were rightly his downfall.

But the foundations he lay deserve deserve to be built upon by a fellow Englishman.

To only look abroad for alternatives is an insult to the likes of Jim Mallinder, Rob Baxter, Dean Ryan and Richard Cockerill in particular, four English coaches doing a sterling job at their clubs.

Halifax-born Mallinder was a name in the frame following Martin Johnson’s dismissal four years ago. He has experience working in the England academy and with the Saxons, as Lancaster had, but has a grander portfolio of work in club rugby, having won the Premiership, two cups and reached a Heineken Cup final in his eight years in charge of Northampton.

Cockerill has won the Premiership with Leicester and also taken his side to the final of the European Cup, while Ryan has an extensive coaching history in England, played for his country like Cockerill, and has worked in international rugby, having enjoyed a spell on Scotland’s staff.

Baxter’s case is equally impressive. Six years ago Exeter were fighting it out in the second tier with Leeds, Rotherham and Doncaster. Now they sit second in the Premiership and command respect in Europe.

Baxter said this week: “English coaches are best placed to work on the management of England’s players in the international environment and get the best out of them. There are coaches who have done their time and I would like to think they would at least get asked, or be thought of as genuine contenders, before we start thinking that we’ve got to bring in an overseas coach.”

Here, here. By all means seek input from outside these shores, or even bring an international coach into the new structure –New Zealand backs coach Wayne Smith appeared to rule himself out before confessing that his head can turn like anyone else’s.

If money is truly no object, then get Smith involved, but only as part of a team that has English roots at its core.

Install Shaun Edwards alongside him. The 49-year-old from Wigan is out of contract at Wales, who have become one of the most fearsome defences in world rugby thanks to the league convert.

But do not be afraid to put a home-grown coach at the top of the pyramid. Baxter and Mallinder should not be overlooked purely because they share the same trait as Lancaster – they are English.