England hunt Welsh coaching staff
THE players are the least of the problems facing the Welsh Rugby Union right now: they fully intend to make the most of this Friday's World Cup play-off for third place against the Wallabies. "It's a chance for us to beat a major southern hemisphere power in this part of the world, so we'll train hard and give it a proper crack," said the button-bright teenage wing George North - and in the longer term, those with a realistic chance of appearing at the next global gathering in 2015 are already contracted up to their eyeballs. The coaching staff? Ah. That's a different story.
According to Roger Lewis, the chief executive of the governing body, work will begin next week on retaining the services of a back-room team who pressed all the right buttons during this current tournament and would now be plotting and planning for an infinitely bigger concluding match but for two profoundly unfortunate events in the opening 18 minutes of last weekend's semi-final with France: the loss of the tight-head prop Adam Jones to injury and of the captain Sam Warburton to a red card. "We have a board meeting next Thursday," said Lewis. "The coaching situation will be the first job we tackle - top of the list. This is the first golden age of Welsh rugby in the professional era and we want it to continue."
Ironically enough, Lewis himself is being talked of as a possible candidate for the CEO position at Twickenham - a role currently being performed on an interim basis by Martyn Thomas, the former chairman of the Rugby Football Union and by some distance the single most controversial figure in English sporting governance. But that little knot can be untied another day. The priority now is to ensure that Warren Gatland stays as head coach of Wales for the next four years, in line with the contract extension the New Zealander signed last October, and that his second in command, Shaun Edwards, agrees a new deal in the coming weeks.
Unlike Gatland, the defence strategist works primarily for someone other than the WRU: namely, the High Wycombe-based Premiership club Wasps. "Shaun has been outstanding for Welsh rugby, but we're not his principal employers," Lewis acknowledged. "We need to have a conversation with Wasps, clearly, and we won't do that until we're out of this World Cup, which, win or lose, will be on Friday. Four years ago, we had protracted negotiations with them and were able to bring in Shaun on a part-time basis - something that has been very positive both for us and for him.
"Of course, we want to do the best thing for our rugby in Wales, but as far as Shaun is concerned it has to be done properly and professionally. We have to speak to the right people at the right time and that's what will happen."
Barely a month goes by without Edwards, a rugby league performer of the stellar variety during a wildly successful playing career, being linked with a return to the 13-a-side code, but he has said during this tournament that he will not feel fulfilled as a rugby man of any description until he participates in a winning British and Irish Lions tour. The fact that the next Lions trip, to Australia in 2013, dovetails neatly with the two-year deal he agreed with Wasps back in the summer suggests he will stay in union for the foreseeable future.
So far, so straightforward. Yet complications are just around the corner. England's coaching team, badly exposed on every front during this tournament, is due a major overhaul: even if Martin Johnson, the shop-soiled manager, is given another World Cup cycle to prove himself capable of leading an international side to success at the highest level - and that would be a massively generous gesture by the grandees of the Rugby Football Union, several of whom now accept that he should not have been appointed in the first place - it is inconceivable that the "tracksuit" coaches will be retained en bloc. That being the case, Edwards will be among the first names that spring to the mind of Twickenham Man as the process of restoring some pride and dignity to the red-rose game begins in earnest.
These are difficult waters for Wales, who cannot be completely certain of hanging on to Gatland either. Lewis said he had received no expressions of interest in buying the head coach out of his long-term contract, and it is certainly true that if the All Blacks win this World Cup - regarded as a formality by the entire population of this country - the current New Zealand assistant coach Steve Hansen will be a very short-priced favourite to succeed Graham Henry in the top job. But might not England be interested in Gatland? He was in the thoughts of some RFU types as long ago as 2007 and there is considerable appetite at Twickenham for the appointment of a man with a proven track record of achievement at both club and Test level.
At least the Welsh can count on their own. "It would be nice to remain in a job," said Neil Jenkins, the revered "ginger monster" who played outside-half for his country at two World Cups and is currently employed as the national team's skills and kicking coach. Pressed yesterday on the situation surrounding Gatland, he said there was an urgent desire to keep the existing team together. "Warren is one of the best coaches, if not the best, in the sport - right up there with Graham Henry," he commented. "We all want him to stay and it's important that he stays. It's like keeping hold of your best players, isn't it?"
For Lewis, the challenge is to tie up any loose ends before Christmas and give the coaching team a full four-year run at the Webb Ellis Trophy when it next goes up for grabs in England. "This tournament has been a resounding success for us," the chief executive said. "The coaching team have complemented each other brilliantly and, together with this very exciting group of players, they've given our rugby a great deal of confidence and pride - a real sense that the future holds something special. I want to find a way of harnessing all that energy. As I say, the work starts next week and I believe the board will give me the kind of support I've had in the past."
Wales expect to play a "majority" of their pool matches in their own backyard at the next World Cup, even though the competition has been awarded lock, stock and barrel to England. The financial demands imposed on the hosts by the International Rugby Board mean ticket sales away from Twickenham will have to be maximised - hence the agreement to use the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for an as yet unspecified number of pool matches. Lewis said it would make business sense to give Wales some "home" games, although he accepted that a big match against another top-tier nation would have to be scheduled elsewhere.
"I think there's a good case to be made for us playing, say, a tier-two nation in Cardiff," he said - a remark likely to go down like the proverbial lead balloon in such countries as Samoa and Italy, who would fancy their chances of competing strongly against Wales on neutral territory.