Northampton launched what might be called their John Wayne act yesterday, so it was entirely appropriate that Keith Barwell should spend the afternoon shooting from the hip. The financier-in-chief at Franklin's Gardens welcomed the former All Black coach Wayne Smith to the East Midlands Sainthood – Smith will sign a three-year deal later this week – by openly admitting that his director of rugby, John Steele, had been the loser in this latest backroom reshuffle.
"There is clearly an element of truth in the perception that Wayne's arrival is a sleight to John," Barwell said. "On the one hand, we felt we needed a coach who could concentrate purely on coaching and team preparation – and Wayne is one of the best coaches in the world. On the other hand, there was the fact that John never played international rugby. That, I believe, made life a little difficult for him in his dealings with some of the Test players we have here."
Barwell also questioned Steele's squad-building policy. "We have too many internationals and, in particular, too many Scottish internationals," he continued. "We've just been given a suspended fine of £5,000 by the International Rugby Board for failing to release one of them [Steve Brotherstone, the Scottish hooker] for representative duty. But the Scots cost us more than £500,000 a year, and their union doesn't contribute a penny towards that. If John made one error, that was it."
Blunt? You could say. A little on the harsh side, too, given that it was Steele who coached Northampton to Heineken Cup glory as recently as 18 months ago. That, though, is the way of it in professional rugby. At least Steele has a job. Smith lost the highest-profile post in the world game as a direct result of one dodgy line-out throw and a missed tackle, injury-time errors that cost New Zealand a Tri-Nations victory against Australia in Sydney in September.
"It was a pretty devastating defeat: I didn't set foot outside my house for a week because I didn't want to face anyone," said the newcomer, who won 17 All Black caps as an outside-half and coached the Canterbury Crusaders to back-to-back Super 12 titles before planting himself in the hot seat. "When my contract came up for review, I decided I didn't want to continue as All Black coach on a roll-over basis. If I was going to carry on to the next World Cup, I wanted it to be because I was considered the best man for the job. I guess I felt hard done by when the union appointed someone else, but every coach feels that way when he doesn't get chosen."
Smith, who "dreams big but takes little steps towards success", was offered gainful employment from all directions after losing the All Black position to the former England assistant coach John Mitchell. "There were opportunities at home and in Europe; I dare say I could have ended up back with the Crusaders had I wanted to stay in New Zealand," he said. "But I'm intrigued by the prospect of working with new people and taking in new ideas. There are exciting things happening at Northampton, and in England. The system is clearly working here. This is an impressive rugby environment."
Quite how impressed Steele is at the prospect of stepping out of the Premiership limelight and into the shadows of white-collar administration is a moot point. "This gives me a chance to look more closely at other areas of the Northampton operation," he insisted. Under the circumstances, there was not much else to say.
Wasps are hoping to name Warren Gatland, the former Ireland coach, as their new forwards coach later today. Gatland was sacked by Ireland last month, despite ending England's Grand Slam hopes.Reuse content