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Lachlan Waugh: NZ Rugby have left England with a golden coaching opportunity, yet they’re still dropping the ball
Lachlan Waugh
The Platform Drive Producer, Contributing Writer
March 31st, 2022

OPINION: Every rose has its thorn, right? If the last couple of days are anything to go by, England Rugby’s thorn is most certainly their selection method for the next head coach of the men's team.

The cutting edge, yet controversial, reign of Eddie Jones will roll on for a little while longer despite his side’s dismal showing at this year’s Six Nations, where for the second straight year they managed just two wins from five matches. This puts the savvy Australian on the hotseat for what feels like the 100th time.

England Men's Rugby coach Eddie Jones

But England’s Rugby Football Union have thrown their support behind him (once again), honouring Eddie’s planned exit after the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. It hands them a chance to plan for a reset, with a slew of experienced as well as up-and-coming coaches on offer.

However, in a move that every-so-slightly mirrors what New Zealand Rugby did in late 2019, the RFU are narrowing their search, with chief executive Bill Sweeney insisting that, following on from a foreigner guiding the national side for the first time in history, they “have an English set-up”.

Rob Baxter, Steve Borthwick and Richard Cockerill are names that have been tossed around the most, with all three either well-established in the English game or having spent time in the team recently.

If followed, the English-only approach scratches off the likes of Warren Gatland and Rassie Erasmus, who have also been mooted contenders. More importantly, it means the hottest coaching prospect in the world right now in Scott Robertson will have to wait even longer to get a crack at an international job.

The fact someone outside of New Zealand hasn’t launched a full-scale raid to snap him up is lunacy.

Those in the northern hemisphere seemed privy to the astounding work Robertson has done coaching the Crusaders since 2017, having taken over an underperforming team and turning them into a title winner in every year since. It piqued some interest this time last year when he was linked with the England job on one of many occasions where pressure was mounting on Jones.

Robertson’s near perfect record over the last five years dwarfs those of Borthwick, Baxter, and Cockerill, and those who coached in Super Rugby before him, like Graham Henry, Robbie Deans, Wayne Smith, Michael Cheika, and yes, Jones and Erasmus – all very accomplished – never achieved what Robertson has.

The whole situation leaves a similar taste in my mouth as to when Ian Foster was appointed All Blacks coach two and a half years ago. I want Foster to do well and get the best out of his players, but plainly put at the time of hiring, was Foster’s résumé as a head coach as good as Robertson’s? The numbers say no.

Instead what prevailed was a known concept, a figure who had been in the set-up beforehand and would offer a faint suggestion of what was to come. NZR chose comfort over courage.

I don’t want to make this a pro-Razor/anti-Fozzie piece, and add to the overplayed cheerleading of Robertson in New Zealand media, even if it is warranted. I’m more questioning why England rugby is embracing self-indulgence as opposed to sense when they’ve seen it fail more than it has succeeded here in New Zealand?

What works in England’s favour should they throw the kitchen sink at getting Robertson (which I pray they do) is the exit clause in his contract if NZR do not hand him the All Blacks job by 2023. It proves that not only is NZR happy to hang their hat on Foster at the expense of Robertson, the Crusaders coach himself is willing to leave and pursue greener pastures offshore.

England has been joined at the hip with inconsistency for a good 15 years now, and an injection of life is needed. Getting such an absorbing and magnetic figure at the helm would do plenty to help.

Sir Clive Woodward – arguably the greatest coach in England rugby history – is on board; he endorsed Robertson during an interview this time last year, and described a possible Robertson-England marriage as exciting.

This guy… I don't know, but crikey I just get a really good feeling about him...Clearly, he's a winner, he's successful, he's very good with people.

But this is as much about how narrow-minded England are being in their coaching search as opposed to Robertson being the best choice available. Jamie Joseph, Tony Brown, Dave Rennie… just a few names New Zealand Rugby happily ignored in favour of Foster. Surely another body wouldn’t be as dismissive?

It is imperative that the Roses get the best coach available above all other prerequisites. Who is to say the RFU cannot invest in their younger coaches while bringing someone on board from overseas to improve their national side? A little restructuring from within may be required, but if done right, it is hard to see it not paying off.

Another juicy layer to all of this is whoever snaps up Robertson is also taking him away from the All Blacks for however long they wish. It is a double whammy – propel yourself while crippling the opposition.

That must be as tantalising as any other benefit to hiring arguably New Zealand’s best coach right now.

Lachlan Waugh is a sports journalist and Drive Producer at The Platform, residing in central Auckland.