Sir Ian McGeechan, the revered British and Irish Lions coach currently in charge of a big-money operation to restore Bath to something resembling their former glory, was in no mood yesterday to confirm or deny reports that he will sit on a five-man panel that will identify Martin Johnson's successor in charge of the England team.
"I don't know, and that's official," he said, with a mischievous smile. He was, however, prepared to credit Stuart Lancaster for his bold and energetic efforts to date.
"It looks as though he's put all the right things in place," McGeechan said of Lancaster, who was appointed caretaker coach before Christmas and is now a candidate for the full-time post, interviews for which are scheduled to begin after the final round of Six Nations matches in mid-March. "Stuart had to put his own values out there, lay down what he wanted to do and be really open with the players about how he saw England moving forward. He's done that.
"I think it was awkward for him, having to plan for five games. But in terms of providing the team with a clear direction, I think he's done pretty well. A lot of the problems associated with the World Cup campaign have been rectified, I would say, and there seems to be some clarity. He has Graham Rowntree, for whom I have a great deal of respect, working with him and Andy Farrell also brings a lot to the mix. Have I been impressed? Yes."
This will come as music to Lancaster's ears as he contemplates challenges from the South African strategist Nick Mallett and the New Zealander John Kirwan, even though McGeechan added that 17 years into the professional era, the dyed-in-the-wool view that foreigners have no place running national teams seems more illogical by the day.
"A dozen years ago, I might have agreed that a Test side should be coached by someone from that country," he said. "Now, it's much more about getting exactly the right man for the job and hiring him at the right time. Just so long as he's doing it for the right reasons."
Conor O'Shea, the Harlequins director of rugby who has a good deal of hands-on experience in English rugby administration, is also assumed to be on the panel, along with the new Rugby Football Union chief executive, Ian Ritchie, the professional rugby director, Rob Andrew, and the head of coach development, Kevin Bowring. Unless something goes badly wrong in the last two Six Nations games, Lancaster can count on Bowring's support and may also find Andrew in his camp.
Much depends on Ritchie, who moved into his office this week. Being a newcomer – he comes to rugby from tennis – it would be a bold move to stand against the advice of experienced union hands, especially if someone as respected as McGeechan throws his weight behind the incumbent.
When Lancaster was asked to clean the England stables after a malodorous World Cup, he asked McGeechan for guidance. "I wasn't the only one: Stuart sought advice from a lot of people," McGeechan said. "I tried to be as open and sincere as possible in giving him pointers, some of them from my tours with the Lions. But it's not directly comparable. With the Lions, you're dealing with a different talent base."
Try as he might, the good knight was unable to extricate himself from international talk, even though his mind was full of Premiership concerns ahead of this weekend's meeting with Worcester at the Recreation Ground, a game Bath must win if they are serious about making the Heineken Cup next season. Scotland's third successive Six Nations defeat at the weekend generated more talk about the possibility of Andy Robinson, their coach, returning to Bath to join McGeechan in a Lions-standard partnership.
"As Andy is on a five-year contract with the Scottish Rugby Union, all this is innuendo," said McGeechan, a servant of Scotland as player, coach and director of rugby. "It can't be anything else under the circumstances, can it? The only person who can make a decision about staying with Scotland is Andy himself.
"Actually, I happen to think that he's been unlucky so far – I'm positive that if his team had played as well against England in the opening game as they played against the French last weekend, they'd have won that match.
"You have to move beyond the numbers sometimes. I believe Andy is in the process of doing what Warren Gatland did in Wales: he's having a good look at the available talent and bringing people through. Are Scotland a better team now than they have been for a good while? Absolutely."
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