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England’s Rugby Realities (2)

Simon Halliday Rugby Blog

England’s Rugby Realities (2)

Just as we are all ruminating on the right structures to give England rugby success, some fascinating takes have appeared in the press on the England coaching job by Rob Baxter and then Mark McCall. Primarily that they wonder what exactly is the role and who is accountable for what. Even more interesting is that Nigel ‘Ollie’ Redman, my old Bath teammate, has been tasked to lead the process of decision-making for Eddie Jones’ successor.

Ollie was an outstanding lock forward of the ’80s and ’90s for Bath and England, worthy of rather more than his 20 odd caps. He was the victim of random selection decisions, not the only one at Bath, and therefore dropped by England multiple times which also means on the same number of occasions he was deemed good enough! His personal experiences will add a subconscious awareness to his search for someone who can capitalise on the rich seam of talent in the English game. Having left the rugby world some years ago, he brings back (we hope) other skills to assist and while the identification of the next England supremo is one aspect, it is not the only issue.

As important is the structure around the coach, and who holds him accountable. Let me delve into relevant history for success and consequential failure. In summary, Francis Baron has much to answer for and I speak from personal experience, being heavily involved at the time.

In 1998, Fran Cotton, aided by myself and John Spencer and with Bill Beaumont in the background, were empowered to appoint, manage and assess the England coaching team. 4 ex Internationals with business experience. We resisted calls to oust Clive Woodward and his team after World Cup disappointment in 1999, and they answered all critics did they not in 2003, having been the No 1 team in the world for the previous year or two.  It was only when he left in disgust, railing at the inability of Baron to get from the clubs more access to the England players, that the decline set in.

Baron insisted against all advice that Andy Robinson report directly to him and then allowed him no resource, thereby setting him up to fail. The following in-house and distinctly part-time appointment of one of the best ever coaches (who was my first) in Brian Ashton was a short-term fix that backfired comprehensively. Then the ill-fated approach to Martin Johnson by Martyn Thomas, riding roughshod over any logic and backed by Baron. It ended in disaster and both Baron and Thomas were rightfully shown the door having taken England to the depths through sheer rugby incompetence.

One day someone will explain how England missed the opportunity to bring in Nick Mallett and Wayne Smith rather than Stuart Lancaster in 2012. Their status as two world-class coaches was unquestionable and they had offered themselves as the dream package, but the panel of wise(?) men advised a newly arrived CEO Ian Ritchie otherwise. Good to see one of them, Sir Ian McGeechan, change his tune recently and talk about appointing the best coach now not just the best English coach. 

Ian Ritchie can rightfully point to the advice he received but pointedly ignored his own stated objective, to appoint the best coaching team available globally…… which led to the post World Cup keys being handed to Eddie Jones with more than a hint of desperation as well as an open chequebook. Happy days for Eddie.

Successive CEOs Steve Brown and now Bill Sweeney have refused to let Jones report to his peers, despite recommendations to the contrary.

What is the common denominator here? 5 CEOs decide it’s their job to manage and review the coach when none of them know one end of a rugby ball from another, put bluntly. Yet the one time in the last 25 years of pro rugby when a peer group have held the coach to account we win the World Cup. England will always have the resource, it is how it is managed.

Ollie Redman suffered from maverick coaching and selection decisions in his playing career and perhaps Sweeney has played a blinder bringing him in from the deep end because he could make sure this never happens again in the future. We have to suffer the status quo right now because there is no process to change it – simply an acceptance that the CEO appoints the coach and therefore rather ridiculously their futures are entwined, or should I say determined by on-field outcomes. Jones however will be gone regardless of the results at the World Cup 2023.

Is it not the first lesson of corporate life, that a CEO acknowledges his or her strengths and weaknesses. Delegation to those with expertise is a key attribute of leadership. Apparently not in rugby on occasions, and it allows someone like Jones to play his tune with the most powerful rugby nation on earth. He doesn’t fool any of us out here. Let us cross those fingers for 2023 because we have some truly marvellous players who will give it everything. 
Then can we learn after more than two decades of relative failure that the most expensive and significant post in world rugby has to be analysed, assessed and judged by a peer group. Or else success is random and occasional. History has been the judge. Over to you Ollie. 

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