Rugby is getting much more like soccer in this regard, argues Paul Williams
The past few weeks have been an unsettling time if you’re a coach involved in test rugby. Within a matter of weeks, Wayne Pivac went, and Warren Gatland returned. Eddie Jones was buried by the RFU and replaced by Steve Borthwick. Only for Jones to dig all the way through the centre of the earth and end up with the top job in Australia.
If you’re a soccer fan, or anyone who merely glances at Sky Sports news for more than four seconds per day, these managerial murderings are nothing new.
Indeed, they’re nothing new in most pro sports. Which is possibly why they feel so new in rugby, because we often forget how new a concept professionalism is. It’s still only 27 years old – I’ve got a coat older than that and possibly one pair of boxer shorts. Whilst rugby has already adopted many of the other aspects of pro sports admin, managers and coaches were largely exempt from losing their jobs mid-season – especially at Test level.
This isn’t to say that rugby coaches haven’t faced heavy criticism up until this point, of course they have. But even if there were calls for a head coach to be sacked, you just assumed it would be done at the end of the season, or when their contract ran out. But that is not what has happened this season. Pivac, Gatland, Eddie J and Dave Rennie have either been thrown onto the managerial roundabout, or thrown off it, a matter of weeks from the Six Nations. And more importantly just months from the Rugby World Cup.
The World Cup is key to all of this. The RWC isn’t just a cash cow, it’s a herd of chubby buffalos just waiting to be milked. Men’s rugby no longer revolves around the Six Nations, nor the Rugby Championship, and it hasn’t for a while. The 12-month rugby cycle was replaced by the four-year Rugby World Cup cycle long ago.
And perhaps more importantly, the RWC cycle is no longer just based on player depth charts, finance is now the major consideration. The importance of performing well at a RWC affects the unions’ bank balances for the following four years. If you’re a Tier One nation who fails to meet expectations, tickets become very hard to sell, empty corporate boxes get turned into stationary cupboards and sponsors begin fleeing at a Kanye West level.
The other factor of course was Covid.
It precipitated this new cutthroat approach to hiring and firing rugby coaches. There is no money left in rugby. If it was ever there at all. Rugby is largely running on debt levels rarely seen outside of banana republics, and there seems to little hope of any significant investment from this point on. The major unions simply can’t risk a poor RWC performance with a coach that they’re unsure of.
Many questioned how England and Wales could afford to buy coaches out of their contracts and then replace them with equally big wages. But the cost of two million pounds spent now, could arguably save millions further down the line if the worst-case scenario is avoided in France.
As the ever-insightful Alan Dymock mentioned to me recently, there is one area in which rugby hasn’t quite caught up with soccer yet. And that is when the managerial fall out from failure on the field reaches beyond the coaches and into the boardroom. Whether you agree with it or not, in soccer the removal of CEOs or Chairman is commonplace. It is only a matter of time before this trend hits rugby. And just to be clear, in this column we’re only discussing on field stuff.
We’re not talking about a WRU level issue here, which is very different.
The WRU has faced recent criticism over a failure to reform and the lack of funding for the regions. But the BBC Wales’ documentary on the cultural problems at the WRU are a level up from merely a criticism of performance. Some of the things that were reportedly said to female members of staff at the WRU would have shocked in 1620, not 2020.
And the next month 12 months could be the most difficult time that the WRU has ever faced. With Steve Phillips having resigned, and Nigel Walker taking over the top job temporarily, major structural changes are required to deal with issues of equality, inclusivity and commercial realism. Do they stick with a governance system that was designed for a game which was vehemently against having any money in rugby at all? Or do they create a situation more suitable for a business with a turnover of £100 million?
To have amateur representatives from village rugby clubs having a vote on issues which affect a large professional sporting enterprise is unusual at best – willingly selfish at worst. The WRU is one of the most important institutions in Wales, it is not the parish in The Vicar of Dibley.
But, if there has been one single reason to curl a wry smile over the past few weeks, it has been that once again Eddie Jones has had the last word. Whether you like him as a person or whether you appreciate his coaching, fast Eddie has played the slow game perfectly.
Apparently, he was already in discussions with the Australian Rugby Union long before he was given the bolt gun in the back of the head by England. And whilst many were criticising his tactics on the grass, he saved his best miss-move for the plush carpets at rugby HQ.
Good luck to all you rugby coaches. It’s rough out there.
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