The Rugby Football Union has not exactly been renowned for thinking outside the box in recent years – or, indeed, for thinking at all – but there is a brave new world to be explored following the seismic upheavals of the last few weeks and yesterday the men now in charge at Twickenham made an encouraging start by naming Andy Farrell as part of England's interim back-room team for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. Farrell is not the most experienced coach in the world but he may one day prove to be among the best. The future starts here.
One of the true greats of British rugby league, Farrell was some way short of great over the course of a brief and frustrating playing career in the 15-man game. Yet since he turned his hand to coaching at Saracens, the reigning English champions, he has barely put a foot wrong. This was recognised yesterday when the governing body named him alongside the Twickenham insider Stuart Lancaster and the current England scrum technician Graham Rowntree in a three-man caretaker unit charged with seeing the national team through the next few difficult weeks.
At first, the RFU wanted Farrell on a part-time basis, thinking that this would allow him to continue working at club level, much as the highly regarded defence coach Shaun Edwards – another league man – once split his time between Wales and Wasps. However, Saracens took the view that if Farrell was going to involve himself with England, he should do it body and soul. As a result, he will devote himself exclusively to red-rose affairs once the Six Nations squad gathers next month.
Lancaster was an obvious choice to head up the new team: the former Leeds coach has been at the heart of Twickenham's elite department for some years, working closely with the second-string Saxons – some regular members of which, including the Harlequins captain Chris Robshaw, are certain to be named in the Six Nations squad early next month – and spending large amounts of time with the brighter elements in the age-group programme. Rowntree, meanwhile, won plaudits for his efforts at the recent World Cup in New Zealand, which put him in a very small minority indeed.
How many of the caretakers will still be in place come the summer is anyone's guess: a new full-time coaching panel is scheduled to be appointed ahead of the three-Test tour of South Africa in June, and some very senior southern hemisphere figures, including the former Springbok boss Nick Mallett and the World Cup-winning New Zealand tactician Wayne Smith, are interested in taking up the Twickenham challenge. But the interim group can strike a resounding blow for continuity by retaining the Six Nations title – a mighty big ask, admittedly, but not quite an impossible one.
Encouragingly, Lancaster talked a good deal about restoring a positive culture to an England operation that collapsed under the weight of its own arrogance and indiscipline at the global gathering in All Black country. He spoke of the importance of "pride in the shirt and the rose" and made it abundantly clear that the players in his charge would be expected to do the right things. "I was brought up on a small farm in Cumbria where it was all about graft," he said, adding: "It was an unfortunate World Cup and we will learn the necessary lessons. We want players who recognise it and buy into it. We want the ethics to be right. If people don't tick the character box they won't be picked."
Rowntree, who described the last few weeks as among the most testing of his life, is the last man standing of those who worked under Martin Johnson's managership in New Zealand. Johnson resigned last month, having failed to make anything approaching proper sense of the job despite being granted a three and a half year run at it by an acquiescent management board dominated by the now discredited chairman Martyn Thomas. Brian Smith, the attack coach, also resigned after the tournament, in which England were knocked out at the quarter-final stage. Thoroughly disenchanted, he plans to return to his native Australia with all due speed.
Two other senior members of that coaching panel, the forwards strategist John Wells and the defence specialist Mike Ford, remain on the RFU payroll, but their work with the senior team is at an end. Ford, especially, was widely tipped to stay on until the end of the Six Nations, but his absence from the list announced yesterday suggests he is past tense as far as the governing body is concerned. Of the kicking coach Dave Alred, part of the World Cup-winning staff in 2003, there was no sign either. Closely linked with Jonny Wilkinson, whose chances of being included in the new red-rose squad are thought to be non-existent, it seems he too has had his day.
The new trio must name a 32-strong Six Nations squad at the start of next month and intend to come up with something fresh and exciting. "You can't strip away all the experience, but there will be an emphasis on youth," Lancaster said. Farrell's own son Owen, a big hit as a goal-kicking midfielder at Saracens, is a contender. Among others well known to Lancaster, the Harlequins prop Joe Marler has a strong claim, as does the Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples.
Three wise men: England's interim coaching team
One of the most highly qualified coaches in the country, the Cumbrian may have spent recent seasons flying below the England radar – his profile is approximately a zillionth of that enjoyed by Martin Johnson, say – but he has not been short of success and is not without ambition either. His second-string Saxons side are on a long winning streak and he can also claim credit for a raft of age-group successes. When the Rugby Football Union was looking for a performance director earlier in the year, he declared an interest despite a deafening clamour for the return of Sir Clive Woodward.
It took some doing to emerge from the rubble of England's World Cup campaign in one piece, but the former Leicester prop managed it – a fact that spoke volumes for his ability to make a positive contribution behind the scenes, despite the all-pervading darkness. Rowntree was an outstanding forward whose return to prominence after hitting a very low point after the Lions tour of South Africa in 1997 marked him out as an unusually resourceful character. Few players have a bad word to say about him. A top communicator, his technical work is improving almost by the day.
The rugby league legend first switched codes with a grand plan to achieve similar status in union, but he was already in his thirties and had too little time to complete the transition – especially as injury problems kicked in the moment he arrived at Saracens in 2005. There have been no such issues with his coaching, however. Farrell has already tasted success as part of the inspirational back-room team who drove Sarries to a first Premiership final in 2010 and to a first title 12 months later. A brilliant rugby mind, he has had the look of a future England coach about him for two years now.
- More about:
- Guinness Premiership
- Richmond, London
- Saracens (rugby)
- Six Nations Rugby