Interview - Dick Best: England expects, so does he

Sacked by his country five years ago, the London Irish coach is favourite for a recall soon.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
DICK BEST has just been to the West End to see Dancing on Dangerous Ground, a show based on an Irish myth. He could borrow the title for his autobiography. The headline writers' dream is back in the limelight, nominated by Clive Woodward as his successor to coach England. Best has to tread carefully.

Stories of the return of the prodigal, currently in the middle of a major job with London Irish, are, at the very least, premature. "There's been no official contact between the Rugby Football Union and London Irish and no official communication between the RFU and myself," Best said. "My name has been bandied about after appearing in a report by Woody following the World Cup. I also attended a meeting at Twickenham, where I'm allowed in occasionally, and people put two and two together and came up with six. I'm piggy in the middle." And once again the RFU have made a pig's ear of it.

One scenario was that Woodward would become manager and Best the coach in time for the Six Nations in February. That was scuppered by the RFU last week when they announced that Woodward would coach the side for the forthcoming championship. "When Woody approached me I told him he'd have to be discreet," Best said, "because it could have enormous ramifications. Loose tongues on the management board have left me in a fairly difficult predicament. If they are serious about this the first thing they have to do is approach London Irish and then sit down with me. The most vital thing of all is the job description and the terms of reference. There could be so many stumbling blocks. I don't lie awake at night thinking I'm going to be the next England coach."

Best, of course, has been there, done it and has the scars to prove it. When he coached England his record was played 17, won 13, lost two, and those defeats were by a point. Then in August 1994 they sacked him. The RFU sent Graham Smith, who happened to be godfather to Best's daughter, round to his house one Sunday morning to deliver the news. "He was pacing up and down in the lounge and he couldn't look me in the eye," Best recalls. "The only reason they gave was that they just needed a change. Clearly, Jack Rowell wanted to do everything himself. After they'd sacked Alan Davies my wife told me not to get too big-headed. She said this would happen to me. When it did it was still a shock. It had been a period of unprecedented success. We had a pack containing players like Winterbottom, Dooley, Skinner and Moore. It was a different era."

When the RFU make a formal approach to Best they will have to make him an offer he can't refuse. This is his dilemma. "Having been discarded, do I want to work for these people again? It's quite a damaging thing to be dismissed. Everybody knows, everybody reads about it, your confidence takes a knock. It's not like losing a job as a plumber, I'm still a bit sensitive about it. Have things really moved on much since then or are we still bundling through, relying on people's goodwill. As Woody puts it, England are skiing uphill. All you ever hear about is money but the game should be driven by performance. I'm flattered and honoured to be thought of again in this light but there's a touch of deja vu.

"I also have a big responsibility at London Irish. I've brought players and their families here from overseas by selling them a vision. The club has gone from perennial relegation candidates to realistic contenders. When I was coaching Western Province I gave up the chance to become the first Englishman to make his mark in the Super 12. I'd even gone to night school to learn Afrikaans, but I don't regret joining the Irish. I have enjoyed it immensely and will continue to enjoy it. They have been incredibly kind to me. I've been to more people's houses in the last couple of seasons than I did with 23 years at Harlequins, which says something about the two cultures. There are some pretty smart players here and if I suddenly take my eye off the ball they would be on my case. They would know I wasn't applying myself.

"I'm mortgaged up to the hilt with this club. There's a popular myth about the Irish being a bit thick but the people at the helm here are the most innovative and forward thinking I've ever met, and I've met some sharp guys in my time. They don't necessarily know everything about rugby but they're quite brilliant in other areas.

"When we merged with Richmond and London Scottish we inherited all the grief in the world but, looking at it coldly as a business deal, it was outstanding. We received pounds 1.5m and two of our local competitors went down the tubes. I still can't believe we brought it off. The Irish have put a lot of faith in me and things are going according to plan. A lot of it is based around me being here. There's a mutual respect. It's been a difficult week, with people telling me `You can't go', albeit with a drink inside them. It's like working in Dublin every day and my status is not dissimilar to that of Jack Charlton when he was in charge of the Irish football team."

There is, however, an equally compelling case for Best to return to Twickenham to finish a job that was so rudely interrupted five years ago. He is in his office at Sunbury, a Portakabin. Today he takes the Irish to Gloucester - "We've had to be abstemious" - and they will have four days off over the next three weeks.

"If a better job offer comes along it has to be considered," he said. "The main attraction would be to compete in the World Cup. I have seen four World Cups and I have not really been part of any of them. It is still an ambition. Given the chance I'd probably coach any country if it meant being involved in the World Cup.

"I don't know exactly what Woody wants but I suspect he's done his coaching bit. You can't coach from inside, you have to be out there. Coaching England is one of the hottest seats in rugby. I'm brutal, I can be ruthless, but I've learned compassion and I've learned when to take my foot off the pedal. I'm interested in performance but all I want to do is win. I've been doing this for 16 years and that means I've been doing it my way for a long time. If your neck's on the block you want a fair old say in what's going on." In other words, if Woodward becomes manager and Best the coach, England will have to listen to the Best man.

The friendship between the two goes back a long way, from the days when they played for Harlequins. After England, Best coached Quins and saved them from relegation. The following season they were third and the year after that they were third again. And then they sacked him. No names no pack drill, but mention Will Carling and Best's response is: "No comment". The day before an industrial tribunal hearing, Quins settled.

Best's rehabilitation with England began last season. "Woody rang me out of the blue and said he'd like to get me involved but that he couldn't pay me. I liked the idea of an honorary position. I didn't want my role with the club to be compromised. I was writing for a few newspapers and maybe Woody wanted me in his corner so I wouldn't slag him off in print. I've been helping out on selection and keeping tabs on who was emerging and who was going backwards."

He also worked with the A team and took an England sevens squad to Paris. "During the Five Nations I wasn't with the team, I was in the train with hordes of supporters. You can get quite blase about things so it was good for me to slum it. I'd forgotten how much everybody else hates England and I also realise that the English supporters desperately want to win." Best received a letter from Francis Baron, chief executive of the RFU, thanking him for his efforts. "That was that," Best said. "End of story."

Except that it isn't. "Having chosen rugby as my career I'm quite passionate about the game but I'm more aware than most that one day you're a rooster the next you're a feather duster. A lot of water has to flow under the bridge before I make a decision about anything." When the England offer comes, Best will take it. He may be dancing on dangerous ground but that's his chosen territory.