Open era shows the silly side of March

Coaching merry-go-round: Gatland in, Melville out then in, Callard out, Foley in, Ryan maybe out and in...
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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland did not look in too much of a spin when the coaching merry-go-round threw him off at Wasps last Tuesday as the London club's new director of rugby. Gatland, a former Waikato and All Black hooker, has been professionally employed for 12 years, with Galwegians, Thames Valley in New Zealand, Connacht and Ireland, and is accustomed to swings of fortune. They come with the job.

Others less attuned to the open era's emphasis on getting results have been taken aback by the recent ins and outs. In the past 12 months, two-thirds of the top clubs in England and Wales have changed their head coach. Among the dozen club bosses in the Zurich Premiership, only Phil Davies (at Leeds), Rob Andrew (Newcastle) and Dean Richards (Leicester) have survived. It is no coincidence that, between them, they won almost every prize going last year: respectively, promotion to the Premiership, the domestic cup and – in Richards' case – pretty much everything else. The remaining piece of silverware – the European Shield – went to an acting head coach, Mark Evans of Harlequins, who in the latest bout of musical chairs landed back in the hot seat at the expense of John Kingston.

And the music plays on. Saracens need a coach after the Australian, Tim Lane, singularly failed to hit it off with owner Nigel Wray during a one-week trial. Tim Horan is player-coach for now, but Wray is in negotiations with a long-term successor to Francois Pienaar.

When Gatland came to Wasps in December, it was as assistant to Nigel Melville. Now Melville is at Gloucester, and may be joined there by Dean Ryan, his England Under-21 coaching colleague and former Wasps club-mate. Ryan is currently at Bristol, where last week he "welcomed" the ex-All Black selector, Peter Thorburn.

"I sat down with the board when Nigel decided to move on," said Gatland, "and told them not to feel under any obligation to offer me the job. They could advertise it if they wanted." They didn't and here Gatland is, still actually to sign a contract but with the promise of two seasons after this one, and his wife Trudy and two children due to join him from Galway in the summer.

Rumour has it that Melville may have been talking to Gloucester for months rather than weeks. "To be honest, I don't know," said Gatland. "Maybe he decided that he would be going, and he wanted to leave the club with someone he thought could do the job and perhaps take over. I did say to him when I came that I would want a wider role than just doing the forwards, and he had no problem with that. I presume that was part of the 'master plan' but I don't know for sure."

So what is the source of the maelstrom? "Relegation is liquidation," as Wray has said, more than once. Tom Walkinshaw has also cited the fear of the drop, though the Gloucester owner never misses a chance to wave the anti-relegation stick, even with his club standing second in the Premiership.

Gatland puts the line between success and failure higher than that, and has re-set Wasps' sights accordingly. "They had other goals and objectives at the start of the season. Finishing as top London club was one, but it looks like London Irish have got that. Now it's pure and simple, qualifying for the Heineken Cup. It's the financial rewards, the crowds, the sponsors, the teams you're playing against, the whole knock-on effect. If you don't finish in the top six, you're in an awful lot of trouble. We don't particularly want to be playing in the European Shield."

If you find the sight of Michael Foley at Bath sticks in your craw – waxing lyrical about Jon Callard while donning the departing man's tracksuit – remember that sentiment comes second to pounds, shillings and pence.

On Wednesday morning, Gatland divided his side's last seven Premiership matches into "can-win" and "must-win". The day before, Melville rang him, "to check how the big seat was fitting". Gatland barely had time to reply, with agents beating down his door. March is rugby's mad month for players staying or going, too. Wasps are seeking a chief executive, mindful that the coach is not the best person to talk turkey with those he berates and cajoles on the training field.

Pienaar estimates that a coach's shelf life with one team is about three years. Graham Henry had three-and-a-half with Wales; Gatland a similar spell with Ireland. Melville lasted five years at Wasps, although he had been scrum-half there in the amateur days. At 38, Gatland already has his share of grey hair, but while he continues to bank pounds sterling, as opposed to New Zealand dollars, he can afford to turn down an offer from his old Waikato team-mate John Mitchell to join the All Black staff.

And coaches like coaching; it's what gets them buzzing. Get Gatland on the subject of how Alex King needs to add width to Wasps' play, or the edge in training when Lawrence Dallaglio returned to the squad in midweek, and the hands are out of the fleece pockets and drawing patterns in the air.

"I missed the daily contact with players when I was with Ireland, and I'm really enjoying it. Wasps have under-performed, but there is some real quality here. There's a bit of breathing space, because we've got something to aim for. Looking at the changes of coaches, I'll value that breathing space while I can."