For once, Scotland are a happy exception among leading rugby nations. Too often in recent years, news of the Scottish game has concerned the grimness of its internal politics, the parlousness of its finances or the lack of domestic support.
The Scots stand out at present by virtue of having the most stable national coaching set-up, with national coach Frank Hadden considering an extension to his contract.
The Scottish Rugby Union has made it clear that it wants Hadden – who maintained their record of always reaching the final eight at the recent World Cup in France – to continue. While he will undoubtedly want to strike the best possible bargain, there are no suggestions that he is reluctant.
Compare this to just about every other coach of an established nation who went to the World Cup. Gareth Jenkins of Wales was fired. Pierre Berbizier of Italy, Marcelo Loffreda of Argentina, Bernard Laporte of Argentina and John Connolly of Australia have all resigned.
Jake White of winners South Africa refused to re-apply for his job. Graham Henry of New Zealand is still in post but has been told that he must re-apply for his position, and England’s Brian Ashton is awaiting the outcome of a review by the Rugby Football Union.
The only other sure survivor is Ireland’s Eddie O’Sullivan, and he perhaps only because he had the foresight to negotiate himself a new deal before the World Cup. The Irish too are conducting their own review after an abysmal display at the tournament. However, it seems unlikely that they would want to add the costs of paying off O’Sullivan to those they are already incurring for the redevelopment of their Lansdowne Road stadium in Dublin.
It is not so long since
the implications of each vacancy, actual or potential, would have been strictly national. Welshmen would have pondered their credentials for the Wales job, New Zealanders honed their résumés in anticipation of Henry falling and Englishmen sounded out their contacts at Twickenham.
There remain posts – New Zealand, South Africa and France – for which only home nationals need apply. Although England officials have yet to appoint an outsider, they have been prepared to consider it. The rest are open to an international cast of contenders.
When even a single national coaching job falls vacant, the ripples run across the world. When up to eight posts come on to the market in a few months, it begins to look more like a game of musical chairs.
Some seats have already been taken. Former South African coach Nick Mallett, invariably mentioned whenever a significant job comes up anywhere, was known before the World Cup to be Berbizier’s successor at Italy. France maintained its tradition of home appointments by picking Marc Lievremont from the Dax club. Wales have appointed their third New Zealand coach – Warren Gatland, previously with Ireland, Wasps and Waikato.
Other jobs, though, remain in play. Filling them is a highly politicised, often unpredictable process. Two examples from Wales – Mike Ruddock losing out at the last moment when Graham Henry became available in 1997, then getting the job after being a declared non-runner in 2004 – illustrate the potential for the unexpected twist.
White remains the biggest piece on the board. His memoirs, as yet unpublished but with extracts serialised, have probably burnt any remaining South African boats. But he has indicated an interest in the England post, while John O’Neill, Australian Rugby Union’s chief executive, issued an open invitation to apply for their vacancy.
Also in play is New Zealander Robbie Deans, coach of Canterbury Crusaders. Deans was one of an intriguing group of contenders being considered by Australia as they began interviews last week.
Others included are New Zealand-based Australian David Nucifora, New South Wales’s Ewen MacKenzie, Capital Territory’s Laurie Fisher, the side’s defence specialist John Muggleton and the astonishing Alan Jones. The latter coached the Wallabies to a grand-slam tour of Britain in 1984 and the semi-final of the first World Cup in 1987 but has spent most of the interim devoting his formidable wit and bombast to the role of talk radio host.
Deans has a serious shot. Bob Dwyer, who coached Australia to their first World Cup victory in 1991, believes him to be by some margin the best coach in the world. But he would also like to coach the All Blacks. An Australian offer would present a quandary – whether to take it, or pursue his New Zealand ambitions?
The likeliest outcome in England looks to be that Ashton will be retained in a structure in which Rob Andrew, the Rugby Football Union’s director of elite rugby, takes more formal powers as team manager. The main subplot could be the decision whether to retain Mike Ford as defence coach or enter into a three-way battle with Wales and current employers Wasps for the services of Shaun Edwards.
All of which leaves South Africa deciding between continuity candidate and present backs coach Allister Coetzee, 1995 World Cup winning hero Chester Williams, veteran Peter de Villiers, and Heyneke Meyer from North Transvaal Blue Bells.
When the music stops, Jake White, in spite of his achievement at the World Cup, may be among those without a chair. But don’t expect that to last too long.