Stuart Lancaster leaves England: So who next for rugby’s most pressurised role?
The RFU announced on Wednesday that Stuart Lancaster had left as head coach following a disastrous World Cup campaign. We look at the candidates to fill what has become one of the most difficult roles in rugby union.
And so, weeks after the event, the deed is finally done.
On Wednesday the England Rugby Football Union confirmed that Stuart Lancaster had stepped down as head coach, following England’s disastrous World Cup campaign.
After becoming the first solo hosts in history to fail to escape the group stages of a World Cup, it was always likely that Lancaster would pay with his job. The subsequent fallout – most recently Sam Burgess’s return to rugby league and revelations about investment tips from a team kitman that had gone sour – only made that eventuality more likely.
Perhaps the only surprise is that it took this long for a decision to be reached – with RFU chairman Ian Ritchie intimating that, after Lancaster had been afforded his say in the investigation into what had gone wrong over the past few months, it was only then agreed that he did not have a long-term future as head coach.
“Following the review, Stuart and I met, where we agreed that he should step down as head coach,” Ritchie said in a statement. “Looking forward, we will leave no stone unturned to ensure England achieves sustained success in the future.”
RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie (R) and England head coach Stuart Lancaster during the press conference.Reuters
HOW DID LANCASTER REACT?
With a sort of grim acceptance, as you might anticipate - albeit one tempered with an insistence that the current squad can still go on to achieve great things in the future.
" As I have always said, I ultimately accept and take responsibility for the team's performance and we have not delivered the results we all hoped for during this tournament.
However, I am immensely proud of the development of this team and I know that there is an incredibly strong foundation for them to progress to great things in the future.
It is a young group of players with the huge majority available for the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019, where I believe their recent experience will make them genuine contenders."
SO, WHO NEXT?
Well this will be the intriguing thing. The consensus seems to be that there is no one obvious contender to appoint at this particular moment – the big names who have the right experience are already tied to high-profile jobs, and others either lack the same experience or have previously had unfulfilling run-ins with the RFU – and the search might not be a straightforward one.
It was a similar dynamic that led the RFU to opt for Lancaster on a permanent basis back in 2012, but obviously this time the pressure is on to deliver a more convincing appointment and sweep a sour period in the team's history under the carpet.
That might mean the RFU throw a lot of money at a big name to lure them into the role, while it probably reduces the likelihood of a current coach without international experience (or, at the very least, top tier European or Super 12 success) getting the call.
Ritchie, perhaps having bought himself some breathing room by overseeing Lancaster’s departure, will be in charge of the appointment.
Australia's head coach Michael Cheika delivers a press conference on October 2, 2015 at Twickenham Stadium in southwest London, on the eve of their 2015 Rugby Union World Cup match against EnglandAFP
THE HEAVY HITTERS
Warren Gatland; Michael Cheika; Eddie Jones
If money - and contracts, and individual agency - were no problem, then England’s next coach would probably come from one of these three names (New Zealand’s Steve Hansen would seem a complete pipe dream).
England know from painful experience what Wales coach Gatland can achieve over time with the right squad, success he replicated with the British and Irish Lions when he took that role in 2013. They would love to have the New Zealander, but he seems set on staying with Wales up until the point he returns to the southern hemisphere.
Jones did his reputation no harm with his sterling stewardship of Japan’s World Cup campaign, but he has just joined the Stormers as head coach and would surely not jump ship barely a month later - even if it allowed him to return to the international arena.
Reports have already emerged that the RFU have sounded out Australia's Cheika about the head coaching job, but he is barely a year into his tenure with his home nation and seems to be guiding them on an upward swing that suggests good things are just around the corner. Given that, why would he leave to return to the bottom of another rebuilding job?
Bath coach Mike FordReuters
THE CLUB COACHES READY TO STEP UP
Mike Ford; Dean Ryan; Rob Baxter; Jim Mallinder; Conor O’Shea
There is a certain romanticism to the idea of giving a club coach the national team reins, although it might seem a particularly risky move for the powerbrokers given the current climate.
Bath coach Mike Ford would appear to be the obvious candidate within that set criteria (he has served in a previous England coaching setup), yet it remains to be seen how relationships are with him, his club and his country after the sorry end to the Burgess saga. The fact his son, George, could be England's No. 10 of the immediate future might work in his favour, of course.
Dean Ryan is respected in the game (and has the advantage of an England playing career to his name), while both Jim Mallinder and Conor O’Shea have enjoyed sustained success in the Aviva Premiership – and have existing relationships with players that could form a core of the new squad.
The emerging name is Rob Baxter, who has impressed everyone in guiding Exeter’s rise from virtual irrelevance towards the Premiership’s upper echelons. But is the step up from that to the England hot seat not too vast?
Jake White - South fricaReuters
THE EXPERIENCED NAMES OPEN TO A MOVE
Jake White; Nick Mallett; Sir Clive Woodward
Now we get into what many might consider more realistic territory. Okay, so Sir Clive Woodward might be an unlikely name, but the 2003 World Cup winning coach is definitely available and could perhaps be persuaded to return. It would be a risky move for both parties (for different reasons), however, and there is no guarantee Woodward will be able to repeat his previous success.
Former Italy coach Nick Mallett has previously been targeted by the RFU - so clearly has his admirers within the organisation - although the fact he has spoken so publicly about their advances in the past (to some embarrassment) may now count against him.
Another South African, 2007 World Cup winning coach Jake White, is in a similar boat – having only recently suggested that he was only interviewed for the role previously to give Lancaster’s candidacy some legitimacy when he was appointed back in 2012.
White, currently at Montpellier, would not want to be roped into a similar political game this time around, but if the RFU can show they are serious about him then it would certainly seem he would be keen on the job.
England rugby assistant coaches Graham Rowntree (L) and Andy Farrell (Reuters)Eurosport
THE SUCCESSION CANDIDATES
Andy Farrell; Graham Rowntree; Mike Catt
Three of Lancaster’s coaches also make the bookies’ shortlist, although none are exactly considered favourites.
All three have international experience as players, which could be seen as a bonus, although you wonder if their coaching credentials have not been tarnished somewhat merely by their association with the Lancaster regime. Farrell has recently been accused of being a bullying force, undermining his boss, while Catt got into an unseemly altercation with Danny Cipriani in the week prior to the World Cup starting.
Rowntree, the forwards coach, might be the least controversial of the three – but the fact England’s pack hardly impressed during the World Cup does little to suggest he is the perfect man to take overall control. Nevertheless, the fact all three have not left alongside Lancaster as well suggests the RFU, for now at least, still feel they have something to offer.
Exeter Chiefs coach Rob BaxterReuters
WHAT DO THE BOOKIES SAY?
They effectively say: Watch out for Rob Baxter!
5/1 - Rob Baxter, Jake White, Mike Ford
6/1 - Dean Ryan, Eddie Jones, Jim Mallinder
8/1 - Conor O'Shea
10/1 - Nick Mallett
12/1 - Mike Catt, Robbie Deans, Shaun Edwards, Warren Gatland
16/1 - Michael Cheika, John Kirwan, Vern Cotter
20/1 - Sir Clive Woodward
100/1 - Andy Robinson
England head coach Stuart Lancaster before the gameReuters
Obviously at this point Lancaster probably still has not cleared his desk at RFU HQ, so it is a bit early to make an concrete claims about who will be strolling in with the new broom and the big dossier of ideas just yet. Nevertheless, it would clearly be negligent of Ritchie and his team not to at least sound out Cheika and Gatland, the two dream candidates. Both have strong reasons to stay where they are, however, meaning such a pursuit might be fruitless - but it is probably one that has to be done regardless.
Mallett’s chance has presumably passed, while the likes of Connor O’Shea and Mike Ford will surely be considered too risky by Ritchie, given their lack of international experience. In that regard Ford has a slight advantage (he served in Martin Johnson’s staff before moving to Bath, and could be seen as the ideal man to foster son George Ford’s talent) but, after the Burgess affair, his appointment would surely create as many conflicts as it resolved. Baxter is the 'sexy' pick at the moment, but if he were to become a serious candidate then a lot of due diligence would have to be done to work out exactly how much of Exeter's rise is down to him, and not other factors.
The mere fact Lancaster stayed in his role for so long beyond the World Cup suggests the RFU were at least open to the possibility of him continuing, so the fact he has departed now – at this precise point – means either recent revelations have tipped things over the edge, or the RFU are now suitably confident they already have a superior replacement lined up. That would seem to point someone like Jake White, with a homegrown appointment a distant alternative.
The new coach has to name his Six Nations squad in just eight weeks, a tournament for which England are already (inexplicably) the bookies’ favourite. Whoever the new man is, he will not have long to bed in.