Blooming youth shows need to put nurture over savage nature in the Premiership
Wasps beat the drop by trusting their academy – all clubs must learn that such patience is a virtue
Ructions at Sale, a mass clear-out at London Irish, bloodshed at Bath, a sudden walkout at Gloucester, a sticking-plaster job at Newcastle, something close to a meltdown at Wasps... welcome to the sporting soap opera known as the Aviva Premiership, where a coach who remains in post longer than five minutes has an even-money chance of winning the "Ken Barlow Award for Long Service". Half the clubs have been in turmoil this season and of the other six, five have qualified for Heineken Cup rugby next term. Continuity counts for something, it seems.
It is now three years since this newspaper highlighted statistics showing that, in job security terms, top-flight club rugby in England was more unstable than Premier League football. Nothing has changed. Even in a World Cup year, when clubs producing Test-class players will always be disrupted, owners and boards have shown themselves to be devoid of patience – and, in some cases, common sense.
Sale, Gloucester and Bath finished the season leaderless, although the last named are about to unveil a new coaching set-up under Gary Gold (whose appointment was confirmed yesterday), including Neal Hatley, the former London Irish prop and current academy manager, as forwards specialist. The two West Country clubs could – and in Gloucester's case certainly should – have challenged hard for a place in the Premiership semi-finals, but they lost themselves in a pea-souper of mismanagement. Gloucester have the brightest young backs in English rugby who will be brighter still when the exciting Billy Twelvetrees materialises in their midfield next season, but without a clear sense of direction at the top they will continue to underachieve.
Contrast this with the Irish teams, who are carrying all before them at European level. They have obvious advantages, mostly to do with the sympathetic structure of the RaboDirect Pro12 league they share with the Scots, Welsh and Italians, but there is more to their success than an absence of relegation. Leinster have broadened their horizons and their game by employing southern hemisphere coaches – Michael Cheika, Joe Schmidt – and, while Tony McGahan will return to Australia having failed to keep Munster at the top of the tree, the province did not hesitate to cast its net wide once again by recruiting the New Zealander Rob Penney as his replacement. Even Ulster, who have reached the Heineken Cup final under Brian McLaughlin, have taken the southern option: the former Auckland coach Mark Anscombe will be in charge at Ravenhill for the next two years.
It seems much of the energy, ambition and momentum is on the far side of the Irish Sea – a notion supported by the fact that Harlequins, top of the Premiership in the regular season, are run by a chap called Conor O'Shea.
If there is a saving grace for the Premiership, which turned in its worst-ever performance in Europe, it is that its academies are delivering the goods. Gloucester and Sale are particularly productive, Quins have some top-notch talent – not least in the second-row – and London Irish always seem to be strong. Wasps won the fight against relegation by throwing the kids into the bear pit that they might save the skins of their elders and supposed betters. Christian Wade, Elliot Daly, Joe Launchbury, Sam Jones and Billy Vunipola, take a bow. They have been exceptional.
When it comes to numbers, English club rugby has always been ahead of the field: there are more players in London than in some Test-playing countries. The prospects are bright. Just so long as the men in the boardrooms remember two things: that there is no automatic correlation between the size of a coach's profile and his ability to grow a winning team in the Premiership, and that whoever the coach may be, he needs longer than 30 seconds to make an impact.
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