Tuesday 22 January 2019

Neil Francis: 'Ireland's headmaster is easily the best in class'

Rugby's coaching merry-go-round will be in full swing once the World Cup party comes to an end

'As we would expect, Joe Schmidt has comported himself with grace and humility.' Photo: Sportsfile
'As we would expect, Joe Schmidt has comported himself with grace and humility.' Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The Rugby World Cup semi-finals will take place on October 26 and 27 next year in Yokohama, Japan. I went for a consultation with my fortune teller, Madame Zelda, and she assured me that the first semi-final will be between England and New Zealand and that the second semi-final will be between Ireland and Wales.

Madame Zelda's crystal ball got a little fuzzy when I asked her who would be in the final and who would win that match but she did say that the World Cup would be won by the team with the best coach.

Joe Schmidt and Steve Hansen. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt and Steve Hansen. Photo: Sportsfile

As I was paying by contactless debit card, I happened to ask what was going to happen to all the coaches after the final. The silly old bat launched into a monologue and then, "double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble." She had got as far as "eye of newt and toe of frog" when I told her to chill . . . I had got the message.

When All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen announced on Thursday that he was stepping down after the World Cup finals, it precipitated a situation where four top coaches in the world will all be out of a job. They weren't sacked, just, eh, wanting to spend more time with their families. The age profile is noteworthy: Steve Hansen is 59, Eddie Jones is 58, Warren Garland is 55 and the Headmaster is a baby at 53. All four men have aged significantly over the last few years - that is they have jumped ahead of the natural ageing process. The pressure, even for a schedule of, say, 15 matches a season is full on, a grinding form of depreciation which tells you they have earned every penny of their contract.

At his press conference, Hansen looked and sounded like Droopy, the hangdog cartoon character who speaks in a practised monotone, moves at 33 and a third revs per minute and has the persona of an innately unhappy individual. His catchphrase is "hello all you happy people." That was Hansen's demeanour. He looked and sounded like an empty shell. The pressure of the job, I suppose.

God bless all their families because they are now cursed with having to spend more time with these autocratic personalities.

The age profile tells you that all of these men are in their coaching prime and could or should have at least another five to seven years of top-quality coaching. Hansen, though, looks like he is spent and mentioned in a diplomatic fashion that being the property of the New Zealand public was a draining experience and that he would not miss that part of the job. So whither Hansen now?

Being the former coach of the All Blacks, particularly one as successful as Hansen, does not paradoxically give you much traction for future employment. The Pope can't just retire or resign and pick up a handy Monsignor position in a seaside parish where the sun shines all the time. Newspaper columnist or TV punditry or a brand ambassadorship is not an easy or correct fit. The speaking circuit is an option but if you are a dullard that could be a career with finite prospects.

Japan for the dough? Well, then you are not spending time with your family. Hansen's career at the top level is finished and the coaching merry-go-round is jumping into action.

The race for the job started one year ago. This announcement was coming a long way back and so the soap opera has begun.

As we would expect, Joe Schmidt has comported himself with grace and humility. We were fed a line last week that an assistant role was turned down in 2017. Of course it was, Joe was under contract and between World Cups. Jumping ship mid stream just would not be in his constitution. But why mention it? It is a bit like Sinn Féin entering a candidate for the presidential election; every time they do it, it becomes less and less preposterous so that in time we could elect a Sinn Féin candidate to the Áras.

If you keep making the link again and again about Schmidt becoming the All Blacks' coach, it will eventually be so, even if he keeps denying it. He does not need our permission to go and do it. There is a seven-month gap between the World Cup final and New Zealand's first match of the season in June 2020. Is seven months long enough to spend with your family before you get on the rollercoaster again? Probably not. The timing is perfect, but maybe Joe does need some time off.

Maybe Ian Foster will get a go on his own as numero uno and, quite possibly, Joe could be parachuted in as an assistant after a mediocre season or two. This is possible after the All Blacks lose all their superstars to European teams. Their pool of talent is not inexhaustible; however, Joe is not an assistant coach and I would hate to be a coach with Joe Schmidt as my assistant. You know who would really be in charge and who the players would look to.

What about Wazza? I think Gatland is smart enough to know that he might get one interview but he would know that the humiliation from not receiving a second one would not be worth it. Wazza has burned too many bridges in his own native land.

However, he may advance in hubristic fashion to South West London. It is hard to gauge whether he could deal with the headlines in the Welsh press. 'Say it ain't so, Gaz.' After 12 years in the Welsh job he couldn't take the English job on principle - or could he? He did not publicly distance himself from it. Some of the names being put forward would leave Gatland as the best qualified and most experienced by a good distance.

Joe would never take the English job!

What about Eddie Jones? He has already overstayed his welcome. Jones' MO is to come in, rip it up and spit it out again. It's a two-year cycle and he normally leaves the club/union in a worse position than he found them. Jones was lucky to beat South Africa, unlucky to lose to New Zealand and his team easily dispatched a very out-of-sorts Wallaby side.

Michael Cheika will also be out of a job after the World Cup, but his team won't even make the semi-finals. I reckon that Jones would have been gone with a poor autumn. Fleet Street and the RFU were waiting for a continuation of his disastrous reign over an England team that had more than enough of him, but they will have to stick with him now. I remember reading a piece about Jones after he won two championships inferring that the RFU would have to grant him dispensation if he wanted to lead the Lions to South Africa in 2021. Jones will be free and available to coach the Lions. He won't be picked because you simply cannot have him as a head coach of the Lions.

Wazza might not be available - he did say that he would not coach the Lions again which, roughly translated, means come and get me, I'd do it in a stroke. Schmidt would probably not have a huge amount of interest in it and so that position is up in the air the year after the World Cup.

I have said it before: the modern game is all about coaching. The quality of your coach determines your results. The biggest test for the five coaches I have mentioned is the 10 months they have for the preparation of their teams for the finals. That is a tricky assignment, keeping the squad bubbling when they know that you will be gone once the competition is over.

In the meantime, there is a Six Nations to come for three of the departees - I know where my money is going.

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