Decision time looms for England
The new Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie told reporters last week: “I don’t do complex. I only do simple.” In which case, the selection of England’s next full-time head coach could prove a testing one.
At its most basic, the search is about finding the right man for a very important job. But we all know that the appointment is not as straightforward as that.
Let’s look at the candidates, or at least those we know to be on the shortlist. There is the interim head coach Stuart Lancaster, former South Africa, Italy and Stade Francais coach Nick Mallett and Jake White, the man who led the Springboks to World Cup glory in 2007.
Jake White led South Africa to World Cup glory in 2007. Photo: Getty
Lancaster is in the midst of an extended audition. Put in charge for the Six Nations, he knows the job could well be a temporary one.
At the very worst, he returns to his former position with the RFU, in charge of the England Saxons and Elite Player Development.
By common consent, Lancaster has instilled a sense of responsibility in his squad that perhaps was lacking under the previous regime.
The negativity that followed the World Cup seems to have gone, too.
Lancaster has brought in new blood and has the respect of those around him. So far, it appears he has done little wrong.
What about the results? He has two wins and a defeat from three matches so far. The victories over Scotland and Italy were achieved away from home, both in filthy conditions and both gutsy - if not expansive and flamboyant - in style.
As for the defeat to Wales, it was narrow, with England displaying considerably more attacking intent at Twickenham than at Murrayfield and the Stadio Olimpico.
Mallett is an Englishman who played for and coached South Africa. Despite his English ancestry and Oxford education, he would probably be perceived as a “foreign” appointment. It matters to some.
As for his credentials, he coached the Springboks between 1997 and 2000, during which time they enjoyed a record 17 consecutive victories and reached the World Cup semi-finals in 1999. Mallett then moved to France, where he took Stade Francais to two domestic titles.
His next international job was with Italy, a four-year spell that came to an end when they were knocked out in the group stages of last year’s World Cup. During his time with the Azzurri, they beat Scotland, Argentina and, most memorably, France during last year’s Six Nations.
White, like Lancaster, is a teacher by trade. After winning the Under-21 World Championship with South Africa, he repeated the trick in 2007 with the senior squad. He also masterminded their victory in the 2004 Tri-Nations.
Since lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy, White has concentrated on coaching other coaches. He is now eight months into a four-year contract with the Canberra-based Super 15 side Brumbies. Whatever the RFU’s decision, White has promised his club he will see out the current season, which finishes in August.
So who should the RFU choose? How do they begin to measure an international rookie like Lancaster against the heavyweight CVs of Mallett and White? And when do they make the appointment?
Ritchie said last week a decision might be taken before the end of the Six Nations. He has since revised that statement, suggesting no appointment will be made until the championship is complete.
Having initially told Lancaster he would have the full five games to prove his worth, it only seems fair to make good on that promise.
Ritchie also mentioned he wants someone in place for the tour to South Africa this June, although he would be prepared to wait for the right man.
There are a number of thorny issues for the RFU to deal with. Firstly, if it appoints someone other than Lancaster, the rebuilding work must start again. A new man would want to establish his own culture, his own style, probably with his own coaches and his own players.
The RFU is unlikely to foist a coaching team on the likes of Mallett and White, in the way they did with Johnson. Yet if the RFU chooses Lancaster, it is opting for another man with limited experience of coaching at the very top, just like Johnson.
Does it really want Lancaster in charge during arguably the most important period in its history, with the World Cup due to take place on these shores in 2015?
Perhaps the RFU would feel happier with a seasoned hand on the tiller, someone who knows instinctively how to handle the unique pressures and scrutiny of international rugby? Supporters of Mallett and White maintain that their men fall into this category.
The questions facing the RFU are numerous. Each candidate has qualities. Each would like the job. Who should the RFU go for?