The Rugby Football Union was hoping that its recent transformation from sporting basket case – "bunker mentality" and "whelk stall" were the phrases that sprang most easily to mind as recently as three months ago – to something a little more professional might do it some good on the recruitment front, especially with the England coaching vacancy waiting to be filled. Not so, apparently. No sooner had Wayne Smith, the respected All Black tactician, ended his interest in the position than Jim Mallinder, who is widely regarded as the brightest coaching talent in the country, arrived at a similar decision.
"No, I haven't applied," the Northampton director of rugby stated yesterday. "It's probably the best job in the world, coaching-wise: what a great opportunity. But at the moment I'm concerned with getting Northampton to win something. You can't be distracted. It has to be full-on and that's what I am. I'd like to do England at some point – I spoke to Rob Andrew [the governing body's director of rugby operations] a month or so ago and expressed that. But it has to be the right thing at the right time."
Increasingly, the caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster looks like a man with a genuine chance of cementing his position: indeed, growing numbers of insiders believe he is a victory away from taking an unassailable lead in the race for the position. That victory may prove beyond him, of course: Wales, who visit Twickenham on Six Nations business a week tomorrow, are not in the mood to give a mere Englishman a leg up in the job market, and with France and Ireland also looming, the deed is far from done. But for every RFU member who would like to see the experienced South African Nick Mallett take the reins through to the World Cup in 2015, there is another who would rather see the role performed by a man from these shores. Yesterday's developments shortened the odds on Lancaster.
Mallinder is a loss to the process. His achievement in making international-quality players of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Phil Dowson and Tom Wood cannot be underestimated and there is a possibility that another of his protégés, the scrum-half Lee Dickson, will be picked ahead of the out-of-sorts Ben Youngs for the game against Wales.
Youngs was honest enough in his self-appraisal after viewing footage of last weekend's narrow victory over Italy – a contest that turned England's way after Dickson's introduction off the bench. "I've watched the match twice and it didn't go as well as I'd have liked," he admitted. "I was frustrated with myself when I came off. The game was just breaking up, which is what I enjoy. If I'd got things right in the first half, maybe it would have been different.
"I've spoken to quite a few people since: family, the coaches here with England and those at Leicester. They believe I need to go back to doing what I do – to play my natural game rather than over-think things. I'm at my best when I play what I see and just go with it. I haven't been doing that of late. Instead, I've been trying to force it."
Did his father, the former England half-back Nick Youngs, tell him all this? "Yes, but even if I'd had an absolute 'mare he'd still pick out the good things," Youngs Jnr replied. "He's my dad, so that's his job. And, anyway, he's fully aware that he doesn't understand today's game as well as the coaches. He'll give his views, but with him it's more of a casual chat."
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