New Zealand exiles take dominance to new dimension
Ireland, Scotland and Wales are all led by Kiwi's out to make a point on the pitch
Never has Stuart Lancaster looked so isolated. Forget the six-year contract in his back pocket. The man is surrounded. Surrounded by the most implacable, remorseless, terrifying animals in the rugby world. The man is surrounded by Kiwis.
For a little more than a year now, he has stood alone as a home-union head coach in charge of the country he calls his own. But now he is alone in not hailing from a triangle of the North Island a couple of hundred miles long.
If Europe's best players welcome the Six Nations as a chance not to have to pit their wits against New Zealanders, there is no such respite for Lancaster, who sees ranged against him over the next couple of months, Kiwi after Kiwi.
Let us plot the first point of that triangle in Hamilton, capital of the Waikato region of New Zealand and home to Warren Gatland, the pioneer, who has coached Wales for so long now it is easy to forget that he may not know all the words to Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. Sixty miles east of Hamilton is the small town of Te Puke in Bay of Plenty, which Vern Cotter, the new coach of Scotland, calls home. And 180 miles south of that lies Woodville, population barely a thousand, where Joe Schmidt was raised, Schmidt who guided Ireland to the Six Nations title last year at his first attempt.
It is often remarked how a country as small as New Zealand can so dominate the world of rugby, but for this little patch of it to supply the brain power for three of the four home unions is taking that dominance into new dimensions.
"It's the culture," says Nick Evans, native of North Shore, 75 miles north of Hamilton, and outhalf of Harlequins for almost as long as Gatland's been coach of Wales. "You grow up learning to play the game a certain way. It's not about having a defensive or tactical mindset. You just want to play rugby."
Getting the best out of his team is a trait you might attribute to each of the three Kiwis, not least to Gatland, who is furthest down the road towards what is presumably the ultimate goal of all of them, to coach the All Blacks. Gatland's success with Wales, whom he has led to two Grand Slams and a title, elevates him as the senior of the three. And let us not forget the Lions party he led to a series victory against Australia in 2013.
He speaks of his homeland as bursting at the seams not only with players who cannot be accommodated by the limited number of professional teams, but with coaches. "The old NPC (National Provincial Championship) is almost semi-pro at the moment," he says, "so if you look at New Zealand there are only really six jobs - Super Rugby's five and the All Blacks. But the world is a bigger place. There are so many more chances elsewhere."
If we can plot the roots of the three of them on a small triangle, geographically, we can also place their physiques at different points along rugby's spectrum of types. None of them ever played Test rugby for the All Blacks, although Gatland sat as reserve hooker to Sean Fitzpatrick for years. Cotter, meanwhile, was a bruising back-row forward for Counties Manukau for 10 years, before he finished his career in the lower reaches of the French league, and Schmidt was a nippy winger in a brief career with Manawatu, before he taught and played amateur rugby in Ireland.
As with their physical types, so their personalities sit on a spectrum from the talkative to the taciturn. You might find Gatland in the middle, softly spoken with a glint in his eye, while at the talkative end lies Schmidt, sunny of disposition, who lights up a room with his charm. Cotter grunts when that is put to him. "He's a smiling assassin," he eventually says.
Superficially, Cotter could not be more different from Schmidt. A shaven-headed bear of a man with still, grey eyes, he will answer no question but in a chillingly quiet voice after a few moments of silence.
When invited to comment on that, Schmidt roars with laughter. "He always used to play the Te Puke farmer, turning up in gum boots, but make no mistake, he's got his degree and done his time at university. He's a smart man."
Cotter and Schmidt are old friends. The former, at 53 the oldest of the three, met the latter, at 49 the youngest, when scouting the local schools in Bay of Plenty. Schmidt impressed Cotter, who invited him along to a Bay of Plenty skills session. Within a couple of years, the Steamers had won their first Ranfurly Shield, and Cotter and Schmidt took up assistant-coaching roles with the Crusaders and Blues respectively in 2005.
They were reunited two years later, when Cotter invited Schmidt to join him at Clermont Auvergne, whom they guided to a first French title in 2010.
With them for that triumph was Alex King, who enjoys the rare privilege of having worked with all three of the Kiwis. He was Gatland's outhalf during Wasps' glory years, then during an injury-plagued first year at Clermont in 2007-'08, his last as a player, Cotter suggested he help out with Clermont's coaching. He stayed for another five years.
"From the outside they're different. Joe's a bit more jokey and smiley, but they both have a ruthless edge and will want to put one over each other (when Scotland host Ireland on the final weekend of the Six Nations). We used to play squash every Tuesday afternoon, the three of us along with our analyst, Stephane (Boiroux). They were titanic battles. There wasn't much room on the court against those two. You were grateful to come away in one piece."
The foursome broke up when Schmidt was finally given his head as Leinster coach after that Bouclier de Brennus triumph in 2010. His success was instantaneous. Consecutive Heineken Cups followed, as well as the Pro12 and Challenge Cup in 2013. Cotter will do well to achieve such success in his first season in charge of Scotland, but if this is considered the most competitive Six Nations for years, the knowledge that Cotter has joined his compatriots to tighten the Kiwi grip on European rugby has played its part in making it so.
Lancaster smiles at the thought. "It doesn't worry me in any sense," he says. "It gives me a sense of pride that I am English and coach of England. I'd like to think the passion I have for my country, I can translate to the players."
And in the next breath he acknowledges that Cotter has already managed to rekindle in the Scots some pride in their homeland, an assessment confirmed by Greig Laidlaw, Cotter's captain. National pride or not, though, what these Kiwis understand is where rugby should sit in the modern era. There's something old-fashioned about the three of them, reared as they have been in a far-off land where rugby is more than just another leisure solution.
King refers to a work-hard-play-hard culture, but Cotter opens up, briefly but tellingly, on the nub of his philosophy.
"I'm a firm believer that rugby is the best job in the world," he says, "and that you should have fun doing it."
It is a credo for the ages. Believing in it is what makes those Kiwis the merciless scourges of the rugby world that they are.
Sunday Indo Sport