England’s Dilemma: Undermine Eddie Jones Or Risk Scramble For A Top Coach

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Looking for a successor could be a distraction in World Cup year but waiting could mean the talent is snaffled up and Wales and Ireland have already made their move

Eddie Jones extended his contract to 2021 but the RFU has already floated Warren Gatland as a potential replacement. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/Guardian

The start of the World Cup is nine months away but countries are already thinking about their next coach. Wales are sorted, appointing Wayne Pivac in the summer knowing Warren Gatland would be off after his side’s final match in Japan, as are Ireland, with Andy Farrell to take over from Joe Schmidt.

In New Zealand, Steve Hansen is due to announce this evening UK time as to whether he will seek a new contract after the World Cup. Rassie Erasmus has told South Africa he will not be carrying on after Japan, focusing on his director of rugby role instead. Australia’s Michael Cheika may not last that long after taking part in a performance review this month after the Wallabies’ worst year, in terms of results, for 60 years. A decision is expected before Christmas.

England have already said that they are mulling over who should succeed Eddie Jones, even though the Australian’s contract has been extended to 2021. One of his predecessors, Sir Clive Woodward, criticised the Rugby Football Union for effectively undermining Jones by mentioning potential candidates before the vacancy sign has been displayed.

“It’s a complete distraction and another own goal from Twickenham,” he said. “With 2019 approaching, who cares who is taking over? The union should be more concerned that Newcastle, Exeter, Bath, Wasps and Leicester all lost in Europe this weekend. It’s not all plain sailing in English rugby on or off the pitch.”

Woodward has a point but a problem for the RFU, which is hunting for its sixth chief executive this decade following the resignation of Steve Brown, is that to delay could be to miss out. One reason why Wales and Ireland acted so quickly was because they feared they would be involved in a scramble if they left it until after the World Cup and end up with who was left rather than their chosen one.

As Woodward says there may not be a position in need of filling. The RFU thought that four years ago and agreed extended contracts with the then-England management team, lumping itself with a large pay-off package once the World Cup it was fronting lost the hosts before the knockout stages. It makes sense for it to assess interest now, although until a chief executive is in place it cannot decide whether Englishness is more important than experience, as it did after the 2011 World Cup when appointing Stuart Lancaster: someone like Gatland is unlikely to be short of calls.

He has not been heavily linked with his native New Zealand, where opinion favours Schmidt, who has said he is taking time out from the game after the World Cup, should Hansen stand down. Both men have prospered at countries that struggled at the start of professionalism, when resources – financial and playing – left them at a disadvantage, but where they now score over England is the control they have over their leading players, Ireland especially, where the system is even more centralised than it is in New Zealand.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP

Gatland was approached by England in 2007 before both their World Cup campaign and a delegation from Wales flying to New Zealand to see him. It was a phone call that was not followed up as England, against all expectation, reached the final in Paris. It turned out they needed a succession plan because Brian Ashton was removed after the 2008 Six Nations and Martin Johnson installed.

Johnson had no international coaching experience and failed to survive his first World Cup campaign, like his successor, Lancaster. So the choice for the RFU, whenever it will need to be made, is between an English coach, with most of the candidates untried in the Test arena and none as head coach, or someone like Jones, super-coaches as they have come to be known who thrive at the highest level and, unlike their club counterparts, are used to working with players for fixed periods of time rather than every day.

Gatland’s name was floated by the RFU’s interim chief executive, Nigel Melville, last week, along with several others, including Lancaster. He has worked in England with Wasps and knows a number of the England squad through the Lions. He would probably need to be persuaded, no matter what the salary was, having spent 12 years with Wales and fancying a break after the World Cup.

If England are looking for someone at the end of next year, they will be in the same position as 2011 and 2015, having little time to act with the Six Nations starting five weeks into the new year. New Zealand have said that, if Hansen says he will be standing down, nothing would be done until after the World Cup when it will be seven months before the All Blacks play again.

Is the England job too big to turn down? When Jones accepted it, he appreciated the constraints imposed by the agreement between the RFU and Premiership Rugby. He knew when he would have access to players but he would not have an input when they were with their clubs, unlike Schmidt and Gatland, and directors of rugby would decide who played when and where.

Jones has cultivated a strong working relationship with most of the clubs but club and country run on parallel lines, even if the distance between them has decreased. As Premiership Rugby looks to private investors, so they will guard their independence ever more closely and clubs will be able to outbid the RFU for coaches.

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