Jake White, the South African who successfully orchestrated the Springboks' attempt to recapture the world title in 2007, has coveted the England coaching position since... 2007, as it happens. He could be heard describing it as the "biggest job in the sport" even when he was working with his own national side and was still speaking in those terms while earning a few bob as a pundit during last year's global gathering in New Zealand. Although he is now in the early stages of a four-year contract in Australian provincial rugby, nothing has changed. Events in Canberra over the last few days tell us that much.
A couple of months ago, White assured his new employers at the Brumbies that he had not applied – and would not apply – for the England vacancy. What he did not tell them, quite possibly because he did not foresee it himself, was that England might apply to him. That application has now been made: the coach has informed the Brumbies that he has been "sounded out" by Twickenham and, according to the two-time southern hemisphere champions, "declared an interest in exploring his options".
It can therefore be stated that the Rugby Football Union's shortlist is one name longer now than it was a fortnight ago, when the home-grown interim head coach, Stuart Lancaster, and a second South African, the formidably authoritative Nick Mallett, were the only definite candidates. The question now facing the governing body is a simple, yet fiendishly difficult one: does the biggest, richest, most heavily populated rugby nation really want its shop-window team run by a foreigner?
Twickenham committee rooms are not exactly bereft of Little Englanders, many of whom are already spluttering at what they consider to be the South Africanisation of "their" game and will splutter even more if the national team is placed in the hands of a man from the republic, however accomplished he might be. Saracens, the reigning Premiership champions and a very decent bet to retain their title, are half-owned by a South African consortium, while two of the club's many imports from that country, the centre Brad Barritt and the lock Mouritz Botha, are new fixtures in the Six Nations team. The employment of White or Mallett might be an appointment too far for those distinctly unamused by the thought of English rugby becoming even more South African than English cricket.
"A hell of a lot depends on whether the RFU is really prepared to ask someone other than an Englishman to run things," said Eddie Jones, the former Wallaby and current Japan coach, from Tokyo yesterday. "If the job is really open regardless of nationality, I think Jake has a big chance. In fact, I think he'd be a fantastic choice. He's won a World Cup, he's a good selector, he's an excellent man-manager. I think his philosophy is very much in line with the approach to the game over there, because there are a lot of similarities between South African and English rugby in terms of set-piece dominance and the onus on physicality."
The fact that Jones, once a director of rugby at Saracens, feels able to give White such a recommendation should come as no surprise: the two men are close friends who worked together during the 2007 World Cup. It is not, however, correct to assume that Jones sees something for himself in a successful White candidacy. "People are bound to ask if, in light of our previous association, I'd help Jake out if he landed the England job, but I can say now that the answer is 'no'," he said. "I'm signed and sealed. Japanese rugby is the fastest rugby you'll find anywhere and my job is to make that count at international level ahead of the next World Cup while putting structures in place that will make it possible for the team to reach the knockout stage of the home tournament in 2019. It's a big challenge, but one to which I'm completely committed."
Ian Ritchie, the freshly installed RFU chief executive, and his four-man advisory panel – the governing body's professional rugby director, Rob Andrew, the much-decorated Lions coach Sir Ian McGeechan, the one-time Twickenham insider and current Harlequins director of rugby, Conor O'Shea, and the World Cup-winning flanker Richard Hill – have a delicate decision ahead of them, especially if England beat France on Sunday. "A win in Paris would have to put Lancaster in a strong position," Jones acknowledged.
Mallett, whose association with Italy ended last autumn, was the obvious go-to man before Christmas, when England were in behavioural meltdown and in dire need of the firm smack of discipline from someone with genuine international clout. But that smack has been delivered, gently but effectively, by the infinitely less experienced Lancaster, whose addressing of urgent off-field matters has been remarkably sure-footed. Now that the focus has switched back to England's performance on the pitch, might Mallett's innate conservatism be more of a problem than a solution?
Brian Smith, the England attack coach at the last World Cup, is in a good position to answer that one, but he has more important things on his mind: namely, the new job he has landed at his old club, London Irish. The Australian walked away from his red-rose position in December following Martin Johnson's decision to quit as manager of the national team. With John Wells and Mike Ford gainfully employed at Newcastle and Graham Rowntree still involved with England, the only senior member of the Johnson regime now without a job is Johnson himself.
By rejoining the Exiles as director of rugby, Smith will resume his working partnership with the head coach, Toby Booth, alongside whom he operated between 2005 and 2008. Booth, in sole charge for the last four seasons, may be taking a backward step on the career ladder, but at least he had a mention in official dispatches yesterday. In announcing Smith's return, the out-of-sorts club made no reference to the future of the current attack coach, Mike Catt.
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