The feelgood factor may be nice while it lasts, but it leaves a bad feeling when it suddenly disappears. Andy Farrell, the former Great Britain rugby league captain who took his first steps as a Test coach during the Six Nations and was instrumental in restoring England's reputation in the eyes of supporters who pretty much gave up on them during five weeks of World Cup purgatory last autumn, yesterday severed his links with the national team. A little over a fortnight after setting its course for the home global tournament in 2015, the red-rose hierarchy now finds itself wondering where to turn next.
Farrell's decision to stick with his day-to-day coaching duties at Saracens, the reigning Premiership champions and contenders for a second title over the coming weeks, came as an unpleasant surprise to those who felt sure he would jump at the chance to work with England full-time alongside Stuart Lancaster, appointed head coach late last month, and the forwards specialist Graham Rowntree. Lancaster had spoken about the highly productive "chemistry" between the three men, who came together in the aftermath of Martin Johnson's resignation as England manager, and was keen to see the Rugby Football Union buy out Farrell's club contract, which has two years to run. In the event, the respected Lancastrian saved the governing body the trouble of opening its wallet.
"It has been a special privilege for me to be involved in the Saracens coaching staff over the last two and a half seasons," Farrell said. "We have made decent progress but, in truth, we have barely scratched the surface of our potential. The job isn't anywhere near half done and I have decided I want to help finish the job."
Having seen England win four out of five matches and finish second to Wales in the Six Nations, the RFU opened discussions with Saracens a few days after appointing Lancaster, rather than the heavyweight South African candidate Nick Mallett, as head coach – largely on the basis of what he had accomplished alongside his two colleagues. Ian Ritchie, the newly-appointed chief executive, said at the time of Lancaster's promotion from caretaker coach that work on piecing together the rest of the back-room team would proceed as a matter or urgency. Many at Twickenham – perhaps even Ritchie himself –were confident that Farrell would leave club for country in good time for the three-Test tour of South Africa in June.
That confidence was misplaced, and those players who were so impressed by Farrell's inspirational mix of authority, positivity and technical expertise, allied to brilliant communication skills, will want to know why Ritchie's persuasive powers failed him at such a critical juncture. It is not, to say the least, a glittering start to the CEO's tenure.
It is also a significant blow to Lancaster, for whom most things had gone right until yesterday, give or take the odd disciplinary issue and the loss against Wales. He saw Farrell and Rowntree as equals, making it clear that given the choice, he would keep the tight-knit team together. Now, he finds himself a man down. There is no prospect of Farrell returning to England duty under a loan arrangement similar to the one sanctioned by Saracens during the Six Nations, so the search is on for an alternative.
Saracens would not have stood in Farrell's way had he wanted to take up England's offer, such as it was: they are an ambitious club run by a sharp-minded management who very much wanted to retain their man's services, but they also know an unwinnable argument when they see one. It seems that while Farrell was bewitched by the Six Nations experience, he was clear-headed enough to know that as a young, relatively inexperienced coach there was even more to be said for staying in a hands-on environment, secure in the knowledge his time would come again.
Last night, there were two questions on the lips of RFU members. Firstly, whether Ritchie had been sufficiently determined in pursuit of Farrell's services; secondly, they were keen to know about Plan B. Always assuming there is a Plan B. Wayne Smith, the World Cup-winning New Zealand strategist, was immediately installed as popular favourite to join Lancaster and Rowntree, but he is under contract with Waikato. Other names doing the rounds included John Kirwan, the former All Black who has coached Italy and Japan at World Cups and was an early candidate for Lancaster's job; the London Irish backs coach Mike Catt; the former Bath coach Steve Meehan; and, to his world-weary chagrin, the one-time England head coach Brian Ashton, who has repeatedly dismissed notions of a return to full-time rugby employment.
England must tread carefully. Farrell's principal training-field duties during the Six Nations centred on defence: it was Lancaster who concentrated on the attacking element. Most of the coaches linked with the position are attack specialists, although Smith has wide experience across the piece – a fact that makes the former All Black fly-half the most obvious target. There is no guarantee an appointment will be made before the end of next month, when Lancaster and his players fly to Johannesburg for a demanding summer trip that includes matches at altitude in Kimberley and Potchefstroom. They have just one warm-up, against the Barbarians on 27 May.
The Springboks, who also have a new head coach, Heyneke Meyer, are already preparing. Meyer has called up 30-odd players from two Super 15 sides, the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs and the Johannesburg-based Lions, for the first of three camps. Contenders from the remaining three teams will be drawn into the mix in the coming weeks.
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Revered by virtually all who have worked with him – he remains a local legend down Northampton way – the former All Black coach wants to be involved with someone at the next World Cup. Brilliant technician, top communicator.
A left-field thinker with a range of attacking ideas. Some dismiss him as a pie-in-the-sky merchant but he worked productively with Italy – hardly the most glittering running side in the sport – before dragging Japan a yard or two up the hillside.
When Bath squeezed out their Australian coach, they got rid of the wrong man. Even those responsible know that now. Regarded by good judges as the best attack coach around, he is currently heading back home to Queensland with his furniture.
A World Cup winner as a player, he has been building up his coaching portfolio with London Irish since retiring a couple of seasons back. His supporters believe he will be an excellent attack specialist, but the emphasis is on the "will".
The best coach in Europe when the RFU ditched him for Martin Johnson in 2008. More fool them. In recent months, he has repeatedly been linked with a return to England duty. Each time, he has rubbished the idea.
Chris HewettReuse content