Andy Farrell, who took his first steps as a Test coach during the recent Six Nations, yesterday severed his links with the national team.
Farrell's decision to stick with Saracens came as an unpleasant surprise to those who felt sure he would work with England full-time alongside Stuart Lancaster, appointed head coach last month, and the forwards coach Graham Rowntree. Lancaster was keen to see the Rugby Football Union buy out Farrell's contract.
"It has been a special privilege to be involved in the Saracens coaching staff over the last two and a half seasons," Farrell said. "We have made decent progress during this period but, in truth, we have barely scratched the surface of our potential. The job isn't anywhere near half done and I have decided I want to help finish the job."
Having seen England win four out of five matches and finish second to Wales in the Six Nations, the RFU opened discussions with Saracens a few days after appointing Lancaster. Ian Ritchie, the newly-appointed chief executive, said work on the back-room team was a matter or urgency. Many at Twickenham were confident Farrell would be on June's three-Test tour of South Africa.
This a significant blow to Lancaster. There is no prospect of Farrell returning to England duty under another loan arrangement.
Last night, there were two questions on the lips of RFU members. Firstly, whether Ritchie had been sufficiently determined; secondly, what was Plan B. Wayne Smith, the World Cup-winning New Zealand strategist, was immediately installed as popular favourite to join Lancaster and Rowntree, but he is contracted to Waikato. John Kirwan, the former All Black who has coached Italy and Japan, was an early candidate for Lancaster's job and the London Irish backs coach Mike Catt; the former Bath coach Steve Meehan; and the former England head coach Brian Ashton were also mentioned.
England must tread carefully. Farrell's principal training-field duties during the Six Nations centred on defence: it was Lancaster who concentrated on the attacking element. Most of the coaches linked with the position are attack specialists, although Smith has wide experience across the piece – a fact that makes the former All Black fly-half the most obvious target.