Nice guys finish last?
February 27, 2012
Will the England coaching job come down to a two-horse race between Nick Mallett and Stuart Lancaster? © Getty Images
Rarely, if ever, has a defeat for England been the source of such praise as that heaped on the side in the wake of their brave yet fruitless performance against Wales on Saturday.
A fresh-faced England side, a few weeks into a new era under the tutelage of Stuart Lancaster, saw their own Grand Slam hopes fade on a sun-kissed afternoon in Twickenham but far from signalling the imminent departure of their interim head coach there appears to be increasing calls for him to be handed the job full time with his case strengthened by the mystery surrounding the identity of his rivals for the post.
As promising as England's showing was against the Welsh, with the likes of Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Geoff Parling and the general industry of the team offering a glimpse of a bright future, it would be foolish to base such an important decision on one eye-catching performance.
Let us not forget that while they were victorious against Scotland and Italy in their Championship openers, the challenge offered by both sides was limited. Like their rivals, England also struggled to find a cutting edge which is partly the reason that the emergence of such a facet to their play against Wales was welcomed so warmly. As crowd-pleasing was their spirit of adventure, they still failed to cross the whitewash and a two-try haul in their three Six Nations clashes is hardly the form of title challengers. Martin Johnson's England notched 13 tries on their way to the Six Nations crown last year.
Lancaster's efforts to restore England's reputation off the field have been greeted by widespread praise and it is fair to say he has not put a foot wrong - unlike certain members of the squad - in his bid to banish the memory of a Rugby World Cup campaign blighted by the wrong kind of headlines. Afforded the support of a media just as keen as the subject of their journalistic efforts to move on from New Zealand, everything seemed to be going Lancaster's way and it was no surprise when he confirmed he would be applying for the full time position, buoyed by a winning start to his Test rugby coaching career. But with defeat comes doubt where there was once support.
Lancaster's fingerprints may be on the careers of a lot of his squad thanks to his time with the second-string Saxons and his previous development role but he is relatively new to the Test match arena. He may not be as fresh-faced as some of his players, given his proximity to the Johnson regime, but there is a significant void in his rugby CV when compared to who is thought to be his major rival for the full time job - Nick Mallett.
The English-born former South Africa and Italy coach has long been linked with the post and if reports are to be believed, he has thrown his hat into the ring by applying for the role through official channels. Such is his vast experience in international and elite club rugby, it is hard to see the RFU looking beyond him should he end up pressing his claims via interview. Charismatic, honest and straight-talking in front of the media, any fear of a souring of relations with the Fourth Estate after Lancaster has gone some way to re-building those bridges would also be allayed.
Lancaster's side may bounce back from their defeat to Wales and could yet still claim the Championship title but not even an achievement as notable as that would guarantee him the job. Such is the shadow cast by Mallett, but he is not the only thing barring his possible appointment. The 2015 Rugby World Cup looms large on the horizon and the RFU will be concerned that they get the right man at the helm to ensure the most profitable challenge for the sport's showpiece event that will of course be staged on English soil - or albeit but for a jaunt or two over the Severn Bridge.
They will be wary of appointing a coach who is ready for the white heat of a Test match battle and a real rugby brain - someone who can tactically go toe-to-toe with the best in the world. With 30-odd matches between now and the World Cup under his belt then Lancaster may well be that man somewhere down the line. But the RFU is set to appoint the chosen one in a couple of months time and as a result the decision to appoint Lancaster and give him the chance to prove himself would be a major gamble, especially when you have someone of Mallet's calibre willing to throw his significant weight behind your cause. Adding fuel to the flames of doubt is the memory of what ultimately happened the last time they put an inexperienced 'coach' in charge of the national side's fortunes.
So much depends on a successful World Cup campaign, not just the reputations of the coaches and players, but also the future of the game as a whole in England. The powers that be have previously been accused of not capitalising on the legacy left by England's memorable assault on the 2003 crown and the future well-being of the sport is dependent on a successful tournament in 2015 both on and off the field. With so much at stake, a gamble may not be wise and not the kind of risk a new chief executive in Ian Ritchie - who started work this week - is willing to embrace so early into his watch.
Given a high-profile, five-match audition, it appears Lancaster will be a much stronger candidate come the interview phase but not even Mallett's self-imposed sabbatical in recent months can detract from his superior credentials. His spell in charge of the Springboks included a 17-game unbeaten run - the best by a Tier 1 side in the modern era - while his coaching talents also crossed borders and language barriers with French side Stade Francais claiming back-to-back title during his tenure in Paris.
Even when he is not blessed with an abundance of talent, Mallett has the ability to conjure something special with Italy's victory over France in last year's Six Nations the highlight of his spell in charge of the Azzurri. Add in spells on the domestic scene in his native South Africa and Italy and you have arguably the most rounded and desirable coach in the world.
But it is not all bad for Lancaster. He has managed, in remarkably quick time, to breathe life into English rugby and make it an attractive proposition once again for fans and pundits alike. As an RFU-man, his knowledge of the inner workings of English rugby's governing body will benefit him while Mallett's willingness to speak his mind, most notably leading to the moment he parted company with the South African Rugby Union, may cause some concern in the corridors of power.
Lancaster is immensely likeable, as miles of complimentary column inches illustrate, but nice guys have a habit of coming off second best. And as successful his attempts to rehabilitate England off the field it is results on the field that will ultimately decide his fate. While any future success will owe something to Lancaster's steadying of the ship these past few months, you sense the RFU will thank him for his efforts before turning to Mallett to lead England to what they hope will be World Cup glory.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.