With Leicester Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill shown the door at Welford Road and a number of big-name coaches under pressure, is rugby's culture changing irrevocably?
It is human nature that the flaws we see most commonly in others are simply reflections of our own failings. In no regard is this more relevant than in how we, as rugby fans, writers and players, often see football.
Rugby’s self-appointed moral guardians will boo and hiss when their beloved sport takes a perceived step towards it’s sinister round-balled cousin and though they will treat football like a spectre looming over the honourable and dignified sport of rugby union, it’s often little more than a manifestation of rugby’s own inadequacy complex.
Football dominates the sporting landscape and boasts commercial appeal and popularity that rugby cannot even begin to dream of matching and as such, any contrasts or comparisons made with derision towards football are, more often than not, negligible. There is, however, one aspect of football that rugby should be treading lightly around. It is something which seems to be in vogue within the Aviva Premiership currently and that is a hiring and firing culture with coaches.
Swansea City recently made the headlines, dispensing with the services of manager Bob Bradley after just 85 days in charge and whilst this represents the more radical and reactionary of approaches within football, it is something regularly seen throughout the season, with owners demanding instant results and lacking the patience – or willingness to underwrite financial losses – to allow managers to develop long-term plans.
The 2016-17 Premiership season has already seen Bristol part ways with their director of rugby Andy Robinson after just 10 games, Northampton Saints showed backs coach Alex King the door and, most recently, Leicester Tigers sacked Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill, who had been in-post since 2009. Let’s not also forget Mike Ford’s dismissal from Bath in the past close season, coming just one season removed from Ford having guided the club to a Premiership final.
Fear of relegation back to the Greene King IPA Championship, a competition they have less than fond memories of, spurred Bristol into action, whilst the rising and ever-more difficult to achieve standards of excellence within the Premiership prompted the two East Midlands clubs to make their respective moves.
Leicester, the long-time poster boys of English rugby, are not accustomed to being second, third or even fourth best in the Premiership and with the rises to prominence of Saracens, Bath and Exeter and a resurgent Wasps, it can be argued that they have gone a step further and fallen completely out of that top third of the league.
As for Northampton, they may not have the pedigree at the very top that Leicester do, but they have enjoyed fruitful years since their return to the Premiership in 2008 and being rooted in the bottom half of the table clearly doesn’t appease the fans or board alike.
The fact is, the Premiership only has space for 12 teams. Ten years ago, the competition was, largely, a two-horse race between Leicester and Wasps. Sale Sharks, Harlequins and Northampton have all had their moments but there was an established status-quo in the league and the ambition of the owners was in line with the financial realities of Premiership as it was then.
Times change, however.
Increased funding, via owners, club-country agreements and television deals, have seen clubs that couldn’t previously match the depth of the Leicester squad able to compete in that area and Tigers’ ability to sell-out the 26,000-capacity Welford Road no longer equates to a divine right to sit among the top four in the Premiership.
Only four teams can make the playoffs. Only six teams can qualify for the European Rugby Champions Cup.
The unfortunate truth is that the top eight or nine clubs in the Premiership will all see themselves as clubs that should be competing at the very top and whilst that ambition is to be applauded, it needs to be tempered with realism. The demand for instant success in the Premier League – as well as most other top-flight European football leagues – is unquenchable and rugby cannot afford to walk down that same path. The pool of coaches isn’t big enough, for one.
If the owners of the bigger, more established Premiership clubs begin to get itchy trigger fingers every time their club strays outside of the top four or top six, the long-term damage dealt to the players and the clubs could well outweigh the positives of bringing in a new face. Of course, clubs have the right to be unhappy with the direction they are heading in and look to someone else to provide fresh impetus and a new philosophy, but they cannot afford to be reactionary and that is what this current season has bordered upon. And let’s not fool ourselves that Cockerill is likely the last coaching casualty of the season.
Northampton have already issued a statement on their poor run of form this season – never a good sign for a coach – and there is clearly heat on Jim Mallinder at Franklin’s Gardens, whilst speculation is rife that Gloucester could be looking for a new Director of Rugby should Mohed Altrad complete his takeover of the club. As for now relegation-threatened Sale, head honcho Steve Diamond’s position on the club’s board offers him a little more job security than most, but that has not stopped the rumour mill from mooting his successor.
The likes of Saracens, Wasps and Exeter have all deferred instant gratification in the recent history and are enjoying their fair share of long-term satisfaction as a result. They have proven to be coaching models that other clubs should aspire to, whilst Gloucester’s form in the post-Dean Ryan era has proven a strong case study that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
Maybe Bristol needed to shake things up to ensure Premiership survival, rather than giving Robinson more time with a squad still adapting to new arrivals. Maybe Northampton’s lacklustre back play was a result of King – a man linked with an England role not 12 months ago – and not a lack of investment in recent seasons. Maybe Cockerill’s credit in the bank was all spent, despite having guided the club to three Premiership titles, two further finals and playoff appearances in all eight of his seasons in charge, not to mention a Heineken Cup final.
It’s not endemic to England, either, but with the constant threat of relegation and ever-improving standards across the league making it harder to fulfil all clubs’ trophy and European ambitions, it is potentially the beginning of a worrying trend.
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Rugby club owners have the final say and given it’s their money on the line, no one would begrudge them that but unless there’s a clear plan in place as to how the team will improve following the firing of the coach, it’s simply adding fuel to the fire. Football isn’t the enemy, but it’s impatient attitude towards coaches could be.