Leading figures leave two by two

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

By Huw Richards

Noah would be distinctly gratified, his two-by-two concept being the latest fashion. Following on from simultaneous leadership debates in both major political parties, we have the coaches of English rugby's two leading clubs exiting together after Saturday's Zurich Premiership final at Twickenham.

Wasps coach Warren Gatland's departure is readily explicable - after a highly successful spell in Europe he wants to return home to New Zealand. John Wells' decision to leave Leicester for the Rugby Football Union's National Academy was much less expected, not least by his players. Prop forward Graham Rowntree, who played alongside Wells for the Tigers, says: "I was absolutely flabbergasted. I still haven't got my head round it."

He has inevitably commanded less attention than yet another dual departure, that of World Cup winners Martin Johnson - so genially relaxed after his final Tigers training session that he was barely recognisable - and Neil Back. Wells says: "You can't hope to replace players of that quality overnight."

Yet the gap he leaves may be even greater - he has, after all, been around much longer. He played 367 first-team matches from 1982, and was like many outstanding coaches - including this year's other achievers, Wales's Mike Ruddock and Neath-Swansea Ospreys' Lyn Jones - an unluckily uncapped flanker.

He was deputy to Dean Richards as the Tigers won four championships and two Heineken Cups, then inherited the top job as they faltered. In 15 months he has restored their fortunes and standing. Rational, thoughtful and wryly good- humoured, he risks getting coaches a good name.

Rowntree says: "His great strength is honesty, the most important thing you need from a coach. He'll tell you where you're going wrong and what you're doing right. You always know where you are with him. His technical appreciation of the game is second to none and he's a great acquisition for the academy."

Wells is changing lives as well as jobs. "For the last 30 years, I've been concerned 40 weeks a year, as a player or coach, about how we perform and what result we get at the weekend. The academy will be different. It is about picking up talented young players and helping them develop," he said.

He will miss that routine. "I'll miss the buzz of winning and the demands that this club makes upon you, its constant drive for excellence," he said. But both buzz and excellence come at a price. "It is relentless, week-in, week-out. This club won't settle for second best and it won't take excuses."

After working with Richards, in Leicester perhaps an even greater legend than Johnson, for years he saw him sacked 21 months after winning consecutive Heinekens.

Revival under Wells, and Richards' ghastly year in France with Grenoble can be argued to justify that decision, but Wells is typically generous to his predecessor: "Nearly all of the team who have done so well this year had been recruited under Dean Richards. There's nothing to say he wouldn't have done as well if he'd been given the time."

It left an impression. "I think one reason why you are seeing English coaches move from the Premiership to the academy is a feeling that it offers greater security. There's also a chance to work purely as coaches without the pressures of administration and other commitments."

He expects the more demanding Premiership clubs will increasingly be run by overseas coaches - an example set by Leicester in appointing highly rated backs coach Pat Howard, an Australian, to succeed him.

His attitude to the Premiership play-offs, which began in 2003, says much about him. He believes that the true champions are the team proved best over 22 matches. "We set out from the start to finish top and we think it is a genuine achievement." However, he pragmatically accepts the flawed reality: "We've known the rules from the start and know we have to win the final as well."

Opponents Wasps are the only team who have ever won a Zurich play-off match - three semi-finals and the last two finals.

The league table shows that nice guys can finish first. This afternoon's Twickenham clash decides if he also gets the trophy both he, and his club, deserve.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.