Monday 19 August 2019

Neil Francis: Dean Richards can steer aimless chariot back on right road

If RFU can forgive a little bad blood then they have the perfect candidate for coach job

Dean Richards: 'The smartest coach in England for the last 15 years'
Dean Richards: 'The smartest coach in England for the last 15 years'
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

My year of living dangerously was 1987. Certainly the early part of the year was very memorable. First test cap for my country and at the inaugural World Cup for good measure, too. Good times. Roll on to September and I am still in Sydney. I am in the company of nine other people who worked for County Natwest Securities. We were having Champagne before the annual Australian Stock Exchange Awards. It was a time of excess and laissez-faire spending. The stock market was booming, property prices had gone through the roof and everyone had bought into the dream.

Three taxis arrived and I ended up in the last one with the only girl at the party. Honora was her name, and she was head of research in the company. That night she would collect her fourth straight Analyst of the Year award. I had worked the previous six weeks in her department. She had a truly withering intellectual capacity and was, without doubt, one of the smartest human beings I have ever met. She found me limited but amusing - that is why I was tolerated.

En route to the awards the taxi driver engaged us and, when he found out what we did, he gave us 15 minutes on what shares were good, where we should put our life savings, which stocks to short, etc. Honora was absolutely engrossed with his spiel and, when we arrived, she paid the fare - giving him a big tip. As we walked into the ceremony she asked me if I had a pen and paper (no smartphones to send note to self). I asked was it to write down the names of some of the taxi man's exploration stocks, which would sky rocket into the stratosphere? "Neil - I have had quite a lot to drink already tonight and intend to have a lot more - just in case I drink too much I want you to ring me before 8.0 and remind me of this note."

She got in before me but I rang her at 8.0. The piece of paper, which I still have somewhere, said 'port before 8.' She had liquidated her entire share portfolio before the market started. Thirty three days later Black Monday arrived on Wall Street and the stock market dropped over 500 points - a catastrophic fall. That Monday, while I watched grown men cry on the floor of the Sydney stock exchange, the clever girl was sipping Bolly again at lunchtime. For me - a real live Joe Kennedy moment - "When the bell-hops are in it's time to get out." It was a seminal moment.

'Go energy'. Now that sounds like a belter of a stock. Opec can't even get their cycles right but Dave Tennison - the Gordon Gekko of kit-masters - is recommending to the England World Cup squad to punt on oil exploration stocks when Brent Crude is down at $44 a barrel. Warren Buffet is probably seething that Dave was too busy handing out England jerseys to come and take over Berkshire Hathaway and let the old man walk off into the sunset, happy that his company was in good hands.

When the kit-masters are in - it's time to get out. Hard to know what is worse - drunken dwarf-throwing in 2011 or share tipping in 2015. What I thought was really funny was that the headlines reported it as 'bad' share advice. What sort of share tip advising would the newspapers consider from the kit man of a rugby team? Why would he be dispensing this largesse in the middle of a World Cup? Where were the players' minds while all this was going on? As fall guys go, he is as good as any. What were they thinking?

Stuart Lancaster - a decent fella - is gone. His dream of a reconnection with the grass roots of the game and a slightly discommoded fan base were hopelessly misguided. The rebuild of his national squad through a code of humility and understated team work wasn't good enough. Essentially, he and his coaching team weren't up to it. Nor were his players.

Only now, on the weekend of the first European Cup pool matches, do we see Mark McCafferty, Bruce Craig and Nigel Wray - who had been skulking away for most of the season so far. It is not a coincidence that England and France were the World Cup's least impressive performers, and now we can say with certainty that the people who control the clubs in England and France have very little interest in what happens at international level, even though their very survival depends on a vibrant and robust season from the national side and the trickle-down economics of a very sizeable subvention from the national side's endeavours through the RFU.

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Petty little men with no concept of the bigger picture. Their vested interests and grubby shareholdings are their only concern.

It is important that England discover their mojo and that they find a decent coach who will regroup and give better leadership and direction than Lancaster. He had a season ticket sitting on the Mendoza line - which divides acceptable mediocrity and unacceptable mediocrity. For an England rugby coach, a win rate of just 60pc is simply not acceptable.

Stuart Lancaster was paid £1 million per annum - that is a huge amount of money for a 60pc win ratio. It has to be accepted that England will win most of their matches, irrespective of who is in charge. If you paid bagman Dave Tennison £50k he could win over 50pc of his matches, because of the players at his disposal and the relative weakness of most of the teams England play. Is paying £950k for that extra 5-6pc that Lancaster got good enough? Nowhere close.

What forced the RFU's hand was that famous 38-21 win over New Zealand. A 3-0 whitewash in November 2012 against the SANZA sides and Lancaster was gone. Instead, an unlikely victory (and what a victory) brought an unlikely extension. The point the RFU missed was the two losses against Australia and South Africa that ensured their fall in the rankings meant they would share a pool with their 2015 conquerors, Wales and Australia.

Lancaster failed on all the big tests. His side lost nearly all of the close games and he finished runner-up four times in the Six Nations when it seemed easier to win the damn thing.

Given the resources and player depth that England have, these ratios leading up to the World Cup could not be ignored. England's committee was caught cold - it was too late to change. Lancaster was not up to it but they, through inaction, were to blame.

One of the things I found fascinating was that Lancaster held an 'elite' coaching Level Five qualification. What does that mean? Who can give you that qualification? I always got the impression that Lancaster couldn't quite believe he was the man in the middle, answering all the questions at the press conferences. A track-suited employee or development officer who was out of his depth, irrespective of what badges he had.

Good coaches don't blink, good coaches hold their nerve, and good coaches have that extra bit of gumption to make the calls or see the plays. Good coaches get their teams to play better or play smart in the second half. Nearly all of Lancaster's disasters came from second-half miscalculation and mismanagement. Yet he is still not to blame. Patently, the job was too big for him and that is why the people who installed him there have, by proxy, admitted their mistake by saying that they now need a coach with proven international experience.

A lot of coaches with proven international experience have ruled themselves out during the week. There are - irrespective of people ruling themselves out - very few people big enough for the job. If Lancaster was on £1 million per annum (€1.4 million) maybe the RFU could go to £2 million (€2.8 million) for the right man? That would smoke out even the most contractually-bound national coach in the world.

What about Wazza? He just couldn't go. They'd hang him high from the gates of the Severn Bridge. What about Joe? A man of honour and principle. Those virtues are counterbalanced by principal of €2.8 million - significantly more than he is on at the moment with the IRFU. I'd go, but that's me. I don't think Schmidt will be going anywhere.

The RFU have set up a committee of Ians - McGeechan, Ritchie, Watmore and Metcalf. Ben Kay also joins that group. How did you get mixed up in that one, Ben? Who appoints these people? How qualified are they to know who are the right people to appoint for the task of finding the best candidate for the most important role in their organisation? Since Sir Clive Woodward left, England haven't had a coach even close to being good enough to lead them. A good coach would get them into 70pc territory, a really good one close to 80pc.

Of all of the candidates who were mentioned during the week, the man who can lead England to success again did not even get a mention. A man with gravitas, a huge personality and revered as a player. The smartest coach in England for the last 15 years. For the sake of a phial of fake blood he might not be considered. Many national coaches who I know committed far greater crimes still plied their trade without consequences.

The RFU have set up this committee to search high and low for the right candidate, and yet the unmistakeable and redoubtable persona of Dean Richards is standing in plain sight. Should we tell them?

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