Advantage Lancaster as RFU closes in on new coach

Chief executive hints that caretaker is favourite and says interviews will be held in next fortnight

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The Independent Online

Ian Ritchie may not, by his own admission, be the quickest thing on two legs, but the latest man to take his professional life in his hands by occupying one of sport's most active ejector seats has hit the ground running. The new Rugby Football Union chief executive – the fifth man to perform the role in a little over a year and a half – declared yesterday that the search for a full-time England head coach would be short, sharp and to the point, with interviews taking place inside the next fortnight.

Ritchie's "let's crack on" approach means Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker coach, will be asked to make his pitch before the end of the Six Nations. "I appreciate that this puts extra pressure on Stuart because he has a day job to be getting on with, but I want to move this process on," said the 58-year-old former barrister, who joined the governing body from the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club – Wimbledon, in other words. "Some priorities are driven by chronology and this is one of them. It's at the top of the list. I see no reason why we shouldn't get this done by the end of the tournament."

On balance, the timings should just about work in Lancaster's favour, not least because the RFU hierarchy would look seriously stupid if it appointed a rival candidate – Nick Mallett of South Africa, say – before England's final Six Nations contest with Ireland on 17 March and then saw their interim coaching team mastermind a 30-point victory in a blaze of attacking rugby. The last time the union pulled a stunt like that was in 2008, when England recorded a handsome victory over the Irish just as Brian Ashton was being cast aside in favour of Martin Johnson.

There was much feverish speculation as to the underlying meaning of Ritchie's public comments on the coaching issue, but the truth of the matter was that he gave less away than Roger Federer in a mean mood. On the one hand, he congratulated Lancaster on his efforts. "It's a statement of the obvious to say he's done a fantastic job in difficult circumstances," the new man said. "He's done a lot of things that we all consider to have been the right things. He's an impressive person." On the other, he went out of his way to talk up the "excellent" shortlist of candidates while refusing to reveal exactly how short that list might be.

"Selection is a comparative exercise," Ritchie said. "Stuart was right to apply and it's great he has: it's always good to have strong internal candidates as well as external ones. But how do you compare enormous international experience with relatively limited international experience? That's what we have to go through. As far as Stuart is concerned, it's not about whether England win three and lose two, or lose two and win three. It doesn't work like that. It's about comparing management styles."

The new coach, who will report directly to Ritchie, will effectively be chosen by a five-man "advisory" panel chaired by the CEO. The group, rich in rugby expertise and reassuringly free of what Will Carling called "old fartism", will include Sir Ian McGeechan, the Bath director of rugby; Conor O'Shea, his opposite number at Premiership-topping Harlequins; Richard Hill, the World Cup-winning flanker; and Rob Andrew, the RFU's professional rugby director. Andrew's presence will infuriate those who blame him for pretty much everything, up to and including the banking crisis, but given his influential position in the organisation, it would be odd to proceed without him.

While Ritchie said the panel members were sworn to secrecy – something of a leap of faith, given the RFU's sieve-like qualities – he was happy to confirm that meetings had taken place. He also stressed that despite his lack of rugby knowledge, he would take the lead in identifying the successful candidate. "I couldn't be happier with the people helping with the advice, but it is advice," he said. "I usually assume that when you get down to shortlists, the people on the list can do the job."

Quite how Ritchie will do his own job remains to be seen, but he was charm personified yesterday. "I don't want the RFU to be perceived as arrogant or in any way confrontational," he said. "I want us to be collaborative and collegiate." Given the union's recent history, this was radical talk indeed. Collaborative? Non-confrontational? Rugby folk the world over will believe it when they see it.

Who will choose coach?

The 'advisory panel' contains:

Ian Ritchie RFU chief executive.

Sir Ian McGeechan Director of rugby at Bath.

Conor O'Shea Harlequins' director of rugby.

Richard Hill Former England flanker.

Rob Andrew RFU rugby operations director.

Likely shortlist

Stuart Lancaster Caretaker coach.

Nick Mallett Former Italy and South Africa coach.

Eddie O'Sullivan Former Ireland and US coach.