The England rugby team's search for a new coach – how simple life seemed when they were merely looking for a half-decent performance – did not get off to an auspicious start when, on the very day of Martin Johnson's resignation, the outstanding South African strategist Nick Mallett declared himself off-limits. The disheartening news from Cape Town may not be the end of the story, however: leading figures at Twickenham, surprised and alarmed in equal measure by the rebuff, will contact Mallett over the next couple of days in an attempt to talk him into a change of mind.
Mallett had, and continues to have, a good deal of support in Rugby Football Union council circles, as well as among those on the professional wing of the much-maligned organisation. Those who regarded him as the obvious choice to succeed Johnson – indeed, saw him as the only logical choice – are not prepared to give up on him just yet.
Should he stick to his guns, the RFU will not be short of alternative candidates – especially now that Eddie Jones, the Australian master coach currently working in Japan, has signalled an interest.
Jones' concerns over what Twickenham laughably calls its managerial structure are well known, but yesterday he hinted that he might be willing to dip a toe in rugby's most perilous waters on the grounds that things cannot get any worse.
"Over a period of time English rugby has lost its way and you'd have to question the people in place now, but the challenge is getting it right," he said. "If you do, the benefits would be absolutely enormous."
Meanwhile, Northampton are awaiting a formal approach for their head coach Jim Mallinder – something the Midlanders fear may be inevitable. "He's a first-class coach and is bound to be in the running," said Keith Barwell, the chairman at Franklin's Gardens. "Clearly, I wouldn't want him to leave – that's a no-brainer. We'll just have to deal with it if and when it arises. We're in very close contact and as events unfold we'll talk about it and make the right decision."
On the face of it, Northampton supporters would expect handsome compensation from the RFU in return for their main man, but in reality they may be disappointed. Twickenham sources said yesterday that Mallinder, who left a job with the RFU's national academy to take over at Franklin's Gardens, might still be subject to an agreement that precludes any such payment.
The Professional Game Board, an increasingly influential body compromising senior representatives from the governing body and the Premiership clubs as well as the players' union, met yesterday to consider the findings of reviews into England's calamitous performance at the World Cup in New Zealand and discuss possible recommendations to be tabled at the RFU management board meeting on 30 November.
Sir Clive Woodward, who coached England to the world title in 2003, went public with his views on the Johnson regime – views that chimed with all those who have long questioned the decision to appoint to the top rugby job in the country a man with precisely no relevant experience.
"The position is extremely sad for Martin and quite sad for English rugby," Woodward said in an interview with Sky Sports. "Let's be brutally honest: he had no coaching experience, no management experience. It was a huge risk by those who put him in. He actually rang before he took the job and said, 'What do you think?' And I actually said no.
"I said in my professional opinion he should go to Leicester and spend four or five years there. If we have allowed a rookie coach to actually run his own ship for three and half years without any assessment or analysis, I think that is so, so wrong."
Confirming that he had "no wish" to coach England again, Woodward said the RFU should wait for the appointment of a new chief executive before attempting to fill the England vacancy on a permanent basis.
"You need one person to be responsible for making that decision and advising the management board," he remarked.
"We don't know now who made the decision to take on Martin as a rookie manager. We have to absolutely make sure that we have the people there to make the right appointments.
"They have to be professional people with the right skill set to make the right choice. If I were advising the RFU I would be looking to delay this now. I'd want to put a caretaker coach in until we can get it right, because we must get it right."
When England visit South Africa for a three-Test tour next June, the first and third contests will be played at sea level in Durban and Port Elizabeth. The second match will be staged at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
Fair dinkum? Jones' views on England
Eddie Jones, who yesterday confirmed his interest in the England job, would have some bridges to build – he has never been slow to criticise the country's set-up and its players:
"England haven't a coherent under-standing of how to attack and their defence is poor. The problems are across the board. Someone has to take responsibility for coaching the team. It is crazy. You have to ask – what elite development is going on in England rugby?"
"England have two guys from Leicester, one who played in Australia and a rugby league guy. You look at them and ask, 'What's their common philosophy on rugby?' Frankly it's hard to work out."
"Ben Youngs struggles to make decisions and Toby Flood is the same – a big weakness."
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