So, should it be Lancaster or Mallett?
Chris Hewett tidies up the remaining questions over the England coaching job
Q: Credentials, credentials. If Nick Mallett, the man of the world, has them in spades and Stuart Lancaster, the man in the background, has none to speak of, why is there a debate?
A: It depends what you mean by credentials, and whether they maintain their value over time. Nick Mallett, not only a man of the world but a man of World Cups, coached one of the most successful Springbok sides in history, stringing together a record-equalling run of victories and shepherding them to a global semi-final they might easily have won. But that was in the late 1990s, since when a fair bit has happened. His four-year spell with Italy was not a complete failure – maybe not a failure of any kind, given his starting point – but it yielded only three Six Nations victories. And there are some in Azzurri circles who feel he might have spent more time watching players and less time on the golf course.
Lancaster does not compare when it comes to negotiating the highways and byways of Test rugby, although an 80 per cent success rate across his first five internationals suggests he can get from A to B without recourse to a satellite navigation system. But he has credentials of his own, which happen to be different to Mallett's. For one thing, he knows his players. For another, he understands the way the Rugby Football Union operates – no small thing, given the governing body's well-deserved reputation as the most brutal employer since the Pharoahs.
Q: Fair enough. But if Mallett was a "no-brainer" appointment before Christmas, why should he suddenly drift in the betting just because Lancaster had a good run?
A: Mallett was indeed the obvious go-to man when Martin Johnson resigned as manager after finding himself dangerously exposed to the toxic fallout of the World Cup campaign. What did England require? A good kicking, basically. The players needed to have their fortunes told, their consciences pricked, their egos deflated and their heads bashed together. Mallett, an intelligent and articulate individual who positively oozes authority, was precisely the sort to impose some discipline, set some boundaries and establish a few ground rules.
But initially, the Hertfordshire-born South African ruled himself out of contention, thereby creating a vacuum. And we all know what happens to vacuums. By the time his supporters on the RFU talked him round, Lancaster, together with Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, was preparing to do all the above in his own, honest-to-goodness, man-of-the-soil style. How successful was he? Put it this way: Mallett could not have done it better.
Q: So the England players have their feet back on the ground. Good. But isn't there more to be done? Second in the Six Nations may not mean much when they visit South Africa in June and play three games against a proper team.
A: In fairness, Wales can claim to be a proper team – and they needed a little help from on high (from the television match official as well as the Almighty) to find their way out of Twickenham with a win. But yes, the Springboks will be a different proposition, even if they are in a state of flux, and Mallett understands more about South African rugby than most. It is also true to say that the one part of England's game that remains seriously underdeveloped is the attacking bit, three jaw-dropping tries against France notwithstanding.
However, there is precious little in Mallett's track record to suggest he is Carwyn James incarnate. Few people have ever mistaken his teams for the Harlem Globetrotters; in fact, there are a number of extremely good judges who dismiss him as an arch-conservative when it comes to strategy and tactics. Had he taken the job when it was his to take in December, would he have fast-tracked Ben Morgan into the match-day squad or bet his shirt on Owen Farrell?
Q: Point taken. But Lancaster has gone out of his way to credit his fellow coaches as equal contributors to the great resurrection. What if Saracens stick to their guns and insist that Andy Farrell stays with them?
A: If Lancaster is appointed head coach on a full-time basis and he wants Farrell alongside him, the RFU will go to Saracens and buy him out of his contract. The Premiership champions are not daft: they will give Farrell their blessing. The more pertinent question is whether Farrell, relatively new to coaching, feels he would take the right turning on the career path by walking away from day-to-day duties now.
Should he decide against throwing in his lot with the national team, the Wayne Smith Alternative would come into play. The New Zealander severed his links with the All Blacks after the World Cup triumph in October, but has openly declared his wish to be back in international coaching with someone or other in good time for the 2015 tournament in England. Just about the most popular back-room man in the sport, he is also among the most able. With Smith, Farrell might not be missed.
Q: Would Smith really work under Lancaster? Aren't we talking about a coach of Mallett-like stature here?
A: Funny you should say that. The Mallett-Smith ticket was the preferred choice of many an RFU insider before the Six Nations, and there are still some at Twickenham who see it as the way forward. But there is no reason to think Smith would reject out of hand a role with the current coaching team.
Indeed, there are those in favour of keeping the current trio together and adding him as a specialist attack coach. It might be an expensive option but while the RFU is short of many things, a ready supply of cash is not one of them.
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