Just who would make the perfect Rugby World Cup coaching team?
England will look to the future in the coming days following their tournament exit but, if you were picking a fantasy backroom team, who would make the grade?
The perfect rugby coach does not exist. It might loiter fondly in a few imaginations but even football’s ultimate manager Sir Alex Ferguson says it is impossible to win every match.
Players are human beings and prone to mistakes, even if a genius is picking the team.
As England’s James Haskell put it this week: “Coaches can’t control a game from the stand, however good they are.” True enough. But what if a major union set out to clone their ideal super-coach, cherry picking the best attributes from rugby’s shrewdest sages?
Imagine if all the necessary requirements – great selectorial instinct, outstanding man-management skills, smart tactical brain, strategic vision etc – were on a warehouse shelf, available on request? Where to begin?
The obvious place to start is Japan. If there was a prize for the best technically-coached side in the 2015 tournament it would be the Brave Blossoms. From their short, sharp scrimmaging, to their outstanding ball presentation, to their sure ball handling, to their up-tempo style they have been an object lesson to those who argue that good rugby teams are born not made.
Eddie Jones has enjoyed success all over the world, not least as part of South Africa’s World Cup-winning management team in 2007, but Japan’s three pool wins out of four has been his finest coaching hour. Jones, along with his assistants Steve Borthwick and Marc dal Maso, has pulled off the greatest trick of alchemy in sport: extracting extraordinary deeds from a supposedly average bunch of players.
‘Fast Eddie’ has indicated he could be interested if England ever have a vacancy; at this moment he could probably dictate his own terms. Few, furthermore, can match him for press conference sharpness. “Twenty million people watched the Scotland game,” he observed the other day, reflecting on the massive interest in Japan. “That’s the population of Australia including all the kangaroos.”
What about an attack coach? Look no further than Wayne Smith, whose quiet influence has permeated into a succession of All Black three-quarter lines.
If he is out of stock in our mythical warehouse, a new contender could just be emerging in the shape of Stephen Larkham, Michael Cheika’s assistant with the Wallabies. Larkham was a wonderfully subtle player and the rapid improvement being shown by the current Wallaby fly-half Bernard Foley does not feel a total coincidence. As for Cheika himself, you would certainly covet his ability to instil a bit of mongrel in to any side he comes into contact with. He also has a track record of success in both hemispheres and hails from the same Randwick breeding-ground as Jones.
Scrum coach would currently be Mario Ledesma, whose party trick is lying on the ground in the tunnel beneath his front-row forwards as they practise live scrums above him. His worm’s eye view seems to be working a treat.
Too many Australian-based candidates? Time to head back across the ditch to engage a couple of master selectors. Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland share a healthy disregard for media opinion and possess a knack for picking the right men for the right assignments. Gatland, famously, omitted Brian O’Driscoll for the third Lions Test in 2013 and still emerged victorious; Hansen is good at making strong squads even stronger, with Waisake Naholo just the latest example.
As for English talent Rob Baxter and Dean Richards would certainly add something. Dean Richards, who has long had a rare ability to judge rugby flesh, and his up-and-coming modern equivalent and as for Rob Baxter, few have a sharper eye for a shrewd signing than Exeter’s big Chief.
Now all we need is someone to draft a bespoke gameplan each week.
Easy. Joe Schmidt seems to work a number on virtually all Ireland’s opponents, with France merely the latest example. Not many Lions coaching duos would give Hansen and the All Blacks sleepless nights in 2017 but if Gatland and Schmidt joined forces it would be fascinating.
If logic suggests it wouldn’t work – too many cooks etc – their Kiwi inside knowledge would hardly be a minus. It is a pretty crowded coaching box now, with room only for a couple more specialists.
Defence coaches come and go but Shaun Edwards is a born winner – even Australia could not breach Wales’s red line last weekend. Likewise, Wales’s kickers seem to be getting better and better, a credit to their skills coach Neil Jenkins.
So there we have it. The perfect super-coach or, if you prefer, a super coaching team. If only there was a union in need of fresh impetus with the financial muscle to pursue a similar experiment????
In this era of coaching titans, it increasingly pays to recruit only the very best. England would do well to bear this firmly in mind.
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