Gloucester, still one of English union’s big beasts despite a calamitous season of reputational shrinkage, say they will go to the ends of the earth in search of the right strategist to succeed Nigel Davies, who was sacked as rugby director yesterday. If the movers and shakers at Kingsholm keep their promise and travel the full distance – that is to say, all the way to the North Island of New Zealand – they will surely consider offering Wayne Smith, the former All Black coach, an opportunity to return to the Premiership.
A key member of the silver-ferned think tank who plotted the World Cup triumph in 2011, Smith turned down the chance to stay in Test rugby with England when approached by Stuart Lancaster, the red-rose coach, a few months later. He is currently working at Super 15 level with the Waikato Chiefs, champions for the last two years, and has said in the past that he plans to stay put. But Smith knows what it takes to operate effectively in this country – he was in charge at Northampton between 2001 and 2004 – and may, at 57, be tempted by one last tour of duty abroad.
A couple of experienced hands were linked with the Gloucester job while Davies was still in place. Dean Richards, who returned to the Premiership with Newcastle at the start of this season, surprised the Kingsholm hierarchy in March when he stated that he had received a “hypothetical” approach from an agent, adding that he was uninterested in any such move. There was also talk of a possible role for Gary Gold, the former Springbok coach, following his departure from Bath before Christmas, but Gold is now earning proper money in Japan with the Kobelco Steelers.
Now that Davies, who joined Gloucester from the Llanelli-based Scarlets almost two years ago, has been shown the door, interest in the succession is likely to be high. Another former Bath boss, the Australian attack specialist Steve Meehan, has been tempted by Kingsholm in the past, although he is now in the thick of the Super 15 season with Queensland Reds. As for locally based candidates, both Toby Booth and Sean Holley, two high-quality coaches with the right kind of credentials, might come under consideration. Booth, who ran London Irish with some success, and Holley, who made a decent fist of things under difficult circumstances at the Swansea-based Ospreys, are currently holding down second-in-command roles at Bath and Bristol respectively.
Ironically enough, Davies leaves after making solid progress on the recruitment front in an effort to solve Gloucester’s problems up front – the single biggest contributory factor to their desperate under-performance over the last nine months. Two international front-rowers, the Wales hooker Richard Hibbard and the All Black prop John Afoa, will be at Kingsholm next term, as will a couple of Test locks: Mariano Galarza of Argentina and the more familiar figure of Tom Palmer, who played for England at the last World Cup. In addition, the multi-faceted Scotland playmaker Greig Laidlaw is heading south with a brief to solve the club’s chronic goal-kicking issues.
Stephen Vaughan, the Gloucester chief executive, did not beat about the bush in announcing Davies’ departure. “Playing performances and results were a big disappointment to everyone at the club,” he said, referring to the Cherry and Whites’ ninth-placed finish. “The board decided that the future interests of the team would be best served with a different individual in charge of team affairs. We have clear aspirations to be a top four side and that must drive our decision-making process.”