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To Lancaster Or To Mallett

by Preeti Virdee

26th March 2012

England Head Coach: Stuart Lancaster |  Nick Mallett

IT’S crunch time at England Rugby HQ as the powers that be prepare to announce who will take the coaching reins of the world’s largest Rugby Union. And it is just a two horse race between 42 year old Englishman, Stuart Lancaster, a prolific coach with 20 years experience, but just 105 days at the helm of an international team as interim coach at the elite level, and 55 year old Nick Mallett, English-born former coach of the Springboks and Italy.

Nick MallettOn Thursday, 22nd March, both Lancaster and Mallett had their formal interviews with the Advisory Panel made up of the new RFU CEO Ian Ritchie, former Scotland Director of Rugby and most successful Lions coach, now DoR at Bath, Sir Ian McGeechan, Harlequins Director of Rugby, and formerly DoR and Managing Director of London Irish and Director of Regional Academies at the RFU, Conor O’Shea, England and British Lion Richard Hill, and the RFU’s Rob Andrew, in his latest incarnation as Professional Rugby Director.

Advisory Panel RFU

The argument in favour of both candidates is strong, but following a spectacular 3 months as the saviour of England Rugby, a team that according to assistant coach Graham Rowntree, was “in the gutter just a few weeks ago” following the Rugby World Cup debacle and the consequent leaking of confidential reports, has since come second in the RBS Six Nations losing only to Wales, has for the first time in the history of the tournament, had three victories away from home, and most importantly has been transformed culturally to eliminate any hint of ego, arrogance and the like. Stuart Lancaster is now the front runner for the position, with the backing of the England Elite players, the RFU Management Executive, RFU Council members, coaches across the Premiership, and the entire country as he received a standing ovation at Twickenham after his team beat convincing Ireland 30-9 on St Patrick’s day 2012. He received the same reaction after presenting his vision to the RFU Council on the afternoon before the Wales match.

So how did the Cumbrian-born PE teacher from West Yorkshire who never represented his country at the top level and had never coached an elite international squad, end up as the only contender against an international coach with an unending list of experience and triumphs in world class rugby, beating off other coaches with a host more experience like Japan and Italy coach and former Rugby World Cup winning All Black, John Kirwan, who was deemed to not have enough experience at the top level?

Stuart LancasterLancaster grew up and played his rugby in West Yorkshire, captaining Leeds before taking on the role of Academy Manager in 2001, nurturing young talent across the age groups. In 2006, following relegation from the Guinness Premiership, Lancaster took over as Director of Rugby and by the end of that season, catapulted Leeds Tykes back into the premier league. In 2008, he left Leeds after 16 years to become RFU Head of Elite Player Development across all age groups. Under his tenure as England Saxons Head Coach, the squad picked up three Churchill Cups in ‘08, ’10 and ‘11, England U20s reached four out of five Junior World Championship finals and won the RBS 6 Nations U20s Grand Slam. He may not have coached at the highest international level before December 2011, but he did have 20 years of coaching experience, and most of the boys in the England Elite Player squad today, he coached along the way, so he knows them, understands them, gets what makes them tick, and they get him.

Meanwhile, Nick Mallett was born in Hertfordshire in 1956, but spent his first seven years in Rhodesia before becoming a Capetonian when his father was appointed Headmaster at renowned rugby school, Diocesan College. After St Andrews College, Mallett studied English and History at the University of Cape Town and represented Western Province, before moving back to England in 1979 to study at Oxford University, where he won Blues in both rugby and cricket (in the latter he famously hit 3 sixes in one over bowled by a certain Sir Ian Botham OBE).

Nick Mallett Springbok CoachOn returning to SA, Mallett played for Western Province, and between 1982 and 1985, the team won four consecutive Currie Cup trophies. In 1984, under the apartheid regime, Mallett won two caps for the Springboks against the South American Jaguars, a touring side made up predominantly of Argentineans, but also players from Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and Spain. In 1985 Mallett returned to Europe and coached St Claude in France,  where he owned and managed the village bistro, Café le Club. After five years in the Jura Mountains, the coach led AC Boulogne-Billancourt in Paris to victory, before returning home as head coach at the Boland Cavaliers in 1995.

1996 saw Mallett take on his first international position as assistant coach of the Springboks, and in 1997 he took over as head coach, steering the South African national team to their world record winning streak of 17 consecutive wins. The run was abruptly ended on Saturday 5th December, 1998 by England with a 13-7 win at Twickenham.

Nick Mallett Sergio ParisseLeaving South Africa in 2000, Mallett led Stade Français Paris to two Top 14 titles, and returned to coach Western Province in 2004. It was 2006 when Mallett’s name was first attached to the England job after Andy Robinson left, but that time it went to Brian Ashton, and England were less than impressive at the 2007 Rugby World Cup until the players all but instigated a coup and battled their way to the final sans head coach interference.  By now, Mallett was head coach of the Azzurri, a position he held until the end of RWC 2011 in New Zealand. And somehow he also managed to coach the Barbarians to victory in ‘09 against the All Blacks and ’10 against his native South Africa.

HRC Teams TedworthNo one could possible argue that Nick Mallett is not the best currently available international coach on the market. RWC winning Springbok coach, Jake White ruled himself out earlier this month after speaking to the RFU, stating he is happily employed on a four year contract with the Brumbies down under. RWC winning assistant All Blacks coach, Wayne Smith, ruled himself out on the basis of timing and job description which he said was “woolly”, though now he is being touted as a serious contender for attack coach, a position which Smith has now publicly admitted he would consider. Eddie Jones, who coached Australia to the RWC Final where they lost to England in 2003 is about to take the reins through RWC 2015 in Japan. All Blacks RWC winning coach Graham Henry has signed up as adviser to Argentina, and has been busy pouring scorn on English rugby, lambasting Lancaster’s no tolerance policy for inappropriate behaviour, and claiming "England and the English clubs play a game based on fear and a generation of promising backs are dying on their feet."

Stuart LancasterMeanwhile, the unknown, wholly unrecognisable slight yet ever-smiling chap from Leeds was appointed from left field on 8th December. He kept on only British Lions and Leicester coach Graham ‘Wig’ Rowntree from the former staff of the Johnno era, borrowed the formidable Andy Farrell from Saracens, and set up the holy trinity to transform the nation’s elite rugby team from a public perception of England being rudderless, arrogant, inexperienced, lacking leadership and having no chance in the Six Nations, to the second best team in the northern hemisphere, a record only sullied by a most dubious referee in the match against Wales, where the visitors matched the homeside play for play, but an official with acumen could have changed the result. Lancaster set up a leadership group so the burden of the captaincy could be shared; he took a chance on Harlequins’ captain Chris Robshaw, who had only one cap to his name prior to the RBS Six Nation 2012, and named him captain for just two matches, and then let him run with it (though it could have been a different story had Tom Wood not been injured). Robshaw proved he was the right choice, and he led from the front, and he made more hits than most, and he was allowed to flourish alongside his England teammates. England suddenly became free, uninhibited, had no fear and it showed on the pitch as well as off. Two tries down at half time in Rome in horrendous conditions and they fought back to steal the win from Italy. In camp, the press had never seen the players so relaxed and happy to just chat with confidence. They were no longer gagged and ‘towing the party line’.

Graham Rowntree Stuart Lancaster Andy Farrell England RugbyAnd when it was all over, Wig commented at the Six Nations press debrief, “On Saturday night after the post-match dinner at Twickenham, we went back to hotel and had a cracking night.

“But it was tinged with sadness because we felt an emotionally journey was coming to an end. It had never felt that before; everyone had always been ready for home.

“The players have created environment on the back of Stuart's culture. He is the best I've know as a player and a coach, even better than the Lions because of place we were in beforehand.”

A more resounding stamp of approval could not been given.

The Advisory Panel for the position of head coach for England have witnessed the transformation, they have heard what both candidates have to say, they met on Friday and again today to finalise their recommendation. The decision will be taken to the RFU Board of Directors, and the final say goes to CEO Ian Ritchie, the newest member of the RFU. And there is a man not afraid to take a stance, and to deal with politics. Coming from one of the most private members clubs in England, the former CEO of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club is quite a character, and appears to be damn straight with it.

Ian Ritchie RFU CEOAt his first press outing he proclaimed, "I do not do sophisticated or complex, I can only do simple. As far as I'm concerned, this is meant to be fun." But in the same breath he added, "I want us to win every game, at senior level, Under-20s, Under-18s, whatever. Us northern grammar school mafia are quite competitive like that."

There is no word as to when the decision will be made. It could be this week or next, or they could just as likely hedge their bets and put it off until after England’s Summer Tour to South Africa in June, temporarily renewing Lancaster’s contract which ends on 31st March.

What we do know is that Ritchie is very clear on two matters, firstly that he will appoint the best candidate for the job, regardless of nationality (though Mallett being born in England actually dispels that obstacle if ever it was one), and secondly,  he is very clear that he expects the head coach to know who his management team will be.

Nick Mallett Wayne SmithMallett is keen for Kiwi Wayne Smith to join him, alongside former Springbok, Rassie Erasmus, Smith’s technical assistant who also worked under Jake White. Lancaster will want his holy trinity to remain intact, simple in the case of Rowntree who is on a rolling contract with the RFU and no matter the protestation of Andy Farrell and the two years left on his Saracens contract, what the RFU wants, the RFU gets. And as for Wayne Smith & Lancaster, it would be folly to not bring in the world’s foremost attack coach in preparation for RWC 2015, especially when it is in your own back yard.

This job is not to be taken lightly. There is a £1million on the line (over a 3 year contract) for the head coach, even if it is a job at the richest rugby union on the planet. With everything appearing to be falling into place at England HQ, one hopes the right decision will be made. And from where we are sitting, that has to be Stuart Lancaster. Mallett is unquestionably a hugely talented international coach with an irreproachable track record, but what Lancaster has achieved in three months is breathtaking. England Rugby has not felt this good since 22nd November 2003, in the corridors at Twickers, on the concourses at clubs throughout the country, all over the world wide web on blogs and forums, and mostly, as was felt in the hearts of English fans at Twickenham in the last month who demonstrated with their cheers and chants.


†The RFU Board of Directors: Paul Murphy [Chairman], Ian Ritchie [CEO], Willie Wildash [President] , Peter Baines [Chairman of Governance], Bill Beaumont [Co Opted], Rob Briers [RFU Council Rep], Stephen Brown [CFO], Jonathan Dance {RFU Council Rep], Sophie Goldschmidt [CCO], Andrew Higginson [Non-Exec Director], Ian Metcalfe [PGB Chairman], John Spencer [IRB Rep], Miles Templeton [Non-Exec Director], Rob Udwin CGB Chairman], Sqn Ldr Peter Whiting [RFU Council Rep]