Managerial merry-go-round puts Premiership in a spin

With the dismissals of Hanks and Key this week, rugby risks overshadowing football for instability, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

It is not easy to think of an occupation less secure than that of a Premier League football manager.

If the captaincy of the Pakistan cricket team seldom features prominently in any "jobs for life" list, there is still a sense of longevity about it when compared with the top-dog position at, say, Newcastle United. How about instructor-in-chief of the Russian Roulette Society (AK47 Branch), or contributing editor of the subscription magazine "50 Best Ways to Commit Hara-kiri"? Actually, we can stick closer to home. If you're looking for employment without prospects, top-flight club rugby in England ticks all the boxes.

A little under two years ago, this newspaper highlighted the deep instability in the Premiership's job market at director of rugby and head coach level, demonstrating that in statistical terms, the turnover of personnel was every bit as rapid as in football, if not more so. From the start of the 2004-05 season to early March 2009, football's Premier League – a 20-team competition – had seen 57 different managers and witnessed 41 changes at the top. Over the same period, domestic union's 12-team elite competition had had 39 individuals performing the leading roles, with 25 sackings, resignations or demotions.

Since then? More carnage. Richard Cockerill, Jim Mallinder and Toby Booth are still in charge of Leicester, Northampton and London Irish respectively, although Booth was dangerously close to "shut the door behind you" territory recently when the Exiles were in the grip of a painful 10-match losing streak and he needs an immediate upturn in fortunes to be confident of continued employment. In addition – a strange one, this – Paul Hull remains in position at Bristol, who were relegated from the Premiership shortly after his appointment, failed to make their expected return last term and have only just scraped into the eight-team promotion play-offs this time round. All other clubs, from Newcastle in the north-east to Exeter in the south-west, have experienced upheaval. Lots of upheaval in some cases.

The sackings of two directors of rugby on Thursday – Tony Hanks at Wasps, Andy Key at Leeds – followed the abrupt heave-ho treatment dished out to Mike Brewer at Sale shortly before Christmas. Sale's ability to throw around P45s like confetti makes them the new Saracens, whose near-terminal shortage of patience landed them with 10 bosses in as many years. Over the last 23 months, the northerners have been run by Philippe Saint-André, Kingsley Jones, Brewer, Pete Anglesea (for all of five minutes) and, as of now, Steve Diamond.

Officially, Steve Meehan of Bath is the longest-serving No 1 in the Premiership. Unofficially, he has been a No 2 since Sir Ian McGeechan assumed a large degree of hands-on responsibility for team affairs midway through the current campaign. Add to this the decision of the Saracens' director of rugby Brendan Venter to return home to South Africa and the elevation of the Ulsterman Mark McCall to the role, and almost half the teams are in a different place now than they were at the start of the season.

Leeds, now under the control of the former England and Lions flanker Neil Back, head to Saracens tomorrow praying they will have the benefit of the "new boss bounce" syndrome – a familiar phenomenon in football, where teams frequently emerge from a few days of internal strife with a much-needed victory to their name. Back, as ambitious a coach as he ever was a player, will not be able to pin a defeat on personnel issues: both of his current international forwards, the hooker Steve Thompson and the breakaway Hendre Fourie, will start the game, having been released from the England camp in midweek.

Thompson, currently playing second fiddle to Dylan Hartley on the Six Nations front, can expect an interesting afternoon against the young Saracens front-rower Jamie George, who has been the talk of the coaching fraternity for years. Just out of his teens, George has a dozen years on his World Cup-winning rival, and while Thompson has an infinitely greater chance of attending the next global gathering later this year, the 2015 tournament in England is very much on the junior man's compass.

Wasps, the other club recovering from a week they would rather forget, have the thankless task of a trip to Leicester, who have won seven Premiership games on the bounce and have not lost a league game at Welford Road all season. Shaun Edwards, the head coach who is filling in for Hanks on a temporary basis, has made five changes to the side that messed up against Gloucester last weekend. Mark van Gisbergen and Nic Berry return at full-back and scrum-half respectively – the latter move might be considered a smack in the teeth for the England squad half-back Joe Simpson – while Tom Lindsay, Marty Veale and Joe Launchbury start up front.

These are far from happy times for the double European champions. Unable to make their High Wycombe home work for them and, until recently, at serious loggerheads with the tax authorities, they are now facing the prospect of a mini-migration to Japan. Three of their midfield backs – Dave Walder, Ben Jacobs and Steve Kefu – are being heavily linked with a move to the Far East, where money is rather less of an object than it is at Adams Park.

As expected, the first-choice England blind-side specialist Tom Croft will be on the bench for Leicester – his first involvement since suffering a serious shoulder injury the Test defeat by South Africa at Twickenham in November. Lewis Moody, the national captain, is in a similar position, having been named among the Bath replacements for this afternoon's meeting with Northampton after recovering from a knee problem. Of the two, Moody has the better chance of facing France a week today.

Worryingly for the West Countrymen, their prop Duncan Bell has been cited for gouging the Sale forward Chris Jones during a Premiership match at Edgeley Park eight days ago. Bell must appear before a disciplinary panel on Monday.

Managerial departures in the last two years

February 2009 - Present Day (all sacked apart from where specified)

*Richard Hill (Bristol); Feb 2009

*Eddie Jones (Saracens); March 09 (Family reasons)

*Philippe Saint-André (Sale); May 09 (Moved to Toulon)

*Dean Ryan (Gloucester); June 2009

*Ian McGeechan (Wasps); June 2009 (Chose to leave the club)

*Dean Richards (Harlequins); Aug 2009

*John Kingston (Harlequins); Mar 2010 (Replaced by Conor O' Shea)

*Kingsley Jones (Sale); April 2010 (Changed role)

*Mike Ruddock (Worcester); April 2010

*Steve Bates (Newcastle); May 2010

*Mike Brewer (Sale); Dec 2010

*Brendan Venter (Saracens); Jan 2011 (Family reasons)

*Pete Anglesea (Sale); Jan 2011 (Replaced by Steve Diamond)

*Andy Key (Leeds); Feb 2011

*Tony Hanks (Wasps); Feb 2011

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