A few days before the World Cup final between New Zealand and France in Auckland last October, the All Blacks coach Wayne Smith quietly confirmed that while his long association with the silver fern would end at the final whistle, he had every intention of returning to international rugby in time for the next global gathering, in England in 2015. What he did not know then, and does not quite know yet, is whether he could work with a side good enough to relieve his own country of the Webb Ellis Cup.
Smith met Stuart Lancaster, the new England head coach, in South Africa last week – the New Zealander was in the republic on Super 15 business with the Chiefs, whom he joined after the World Cup triumph – and was to all intents and purposes offered the chance to fill the hole in the red-rose coaching team left by Andy Farrell, who had a significant impact on events in the Six Nations but subsequently chose to see out the remaining two years of his contract with Saracens, the reigning Premiership champions.
The offer made perfect sense: Smith has enormous cachet as a top-drawer coach, underpinned by a long record of outstanding achievement. His communication skills make him popular with players; he can work across the spectrum, from attack to defence via skills and strategy; and he has experience of the English scene following a successful tour of duty with Northampton between 2001 and 2004. All Lancaster requires now is an answer.
That should come within the next 10 days, once Smith has talked things through with his family and satisfied himself that the task of plotting against his own country is a fair and reasonable thing to do.
"There are some major considerations," he said yesterday. "Having put the last eight years of my life into coaching the All Blacks and trying to win a World Cup, I'll have to search inside myself to see whether I could coach against them. It's not as if I'd be going to any team. It would mean going to a team who over time could challenge the ABs. I have to be clear in my own mind that I could be a part of that."
By his own account, he and Lancaster hit it off. "I was very impressed with Stuart: he has a clarity of vision I think will make a difference up there," Smith said. "He's very humble and knows what needs to be done, because it's not just about coaching the players, as we found out with the All Blacks. It's about aligning your club coaches, because they're the people dealing with the players. Getting them onside, getting their buy-in to the national team, being strong and vibrant and challenging the best in the world, is pretty important. That will be Stuart's major role.
"He wants some on-field coaches, because he will be in charge of strategy and alignment of the campaign overall."
There is no obvious prospect of Smith being available before the end of the Super 15, which straddles England's tour of South Africa in June, so Lancaster needs to flesh out his Farrell-less backroom team. Jon Callard and Simon Hardy, who coached the second-string England Saxons in February, are natural contenders to oversee the midweek side while the World Cup-winning centre Mike Catt, widely expected to sever his ties with London Irish in the none-too-distant future, is considered the hot favourite to join Lancaster and Graham Rowntree in preparing the Test team for their three-match series against the Springboks.
Meanwhile, another World Cup winner – one Jonathan Wilkinson – resumes his bid for a first European club title tonight when he plays for Toulon against Stade Français in the first Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final. Wilkinson will be on home soil at Stade Felix Mayol and is joined in the starting line-up by the former London Irish flanker Steffon Armitage. Former Bristol captain Joe El Abd is on the bench.
The Parisians include their own English contingent in Paul Sackey, a World Cup final wing in 2007, and the lock Tom Palmer, who played in this year's Six Nations.