Rugby: Axe hangs over northern nations' coach contracts

By Peter Bills

Declan Kidney. Photo / NZ Herald.
Declan Kidney. Photo / NZ Herald.

Maybe it's the regular sound of the axe falling at sporting institutions such as Liverpool, Real Madrid and Inter Milan soccer clubs. Perhaps it gives those in other sports a taste for blood.

But whatever the reason, the Northern Hemisphere rugby nations set off on their end-of-season tours this week with several of their coaches under searing pressure to deliver.

Ireland, who face the All Blacks in a three test series this month, are the best example. National coach Declan Kidney has been undermined by the brilliance of provincial side Leinster's back-to-back triumphs in the Heineken Cup these past two years. While Leinster have flourished and New Zealand coach Joe Schmidt has given the impression of turning his players into world beaters, Ireland have plodded on to more mediocrity, playing a safe, conservative game. The difference between their rugby and Leinster's has been stark.

Ireland's ultimately tame World Cup exit last year after defeating the Wallabies was chalked up as another minus for Kidney's coaching regime. And with a group of weary players at the end of a long rugby season, Kidney well knows that Ireland needs another trip to New Zealand for the second time in 10 months like a collective hole in the head.

But already the whispers are out back home. If Ireland lose all three tests to the All Blacks Kidney will be on shaky ground back home. The clamour for a change of coach is never far from the minds of officials and supporters alike in modern day sport.

It certainly is in Scotland, where coach Andy Robinson has clung on to his post by his finger nails. Mind you, the Scottish Rugby Union did not force the issue, even after their Six Nations whitewash earlier this year, because Robinson is said to be on a £300,000 (almost $600,000) annual contract which still has a couple of years to run.

But a bad defeat to the Wallabies on their June tour could force Robinson to walk. He almost did back in March - significant signs of real progress on their tour this month will be needed to stay the growing criticisms back home. You never know, and Edinburgh did do very well in the Heineken Cup, reaching the semifinal. But as in the case of Leinster, what happens at provincial level can mean nothing when it comes to international rugby.

England, meanwhile, had a surprisingly good Six Nations, losing only to Wales. Victories over France and Ireland persuaded the RFU to give interim coach Stuart Lancaster the job fulltime, ahead of Nick Mallett. But now comes the real test of Lancaster and his men; a three test series against the Springboks in South Africa.

England's problem is that ex-All Blacks coach Wayne Smith turned them down for the post of backs coach. That has left a major hole in the England coaching team for Smith would have brought so much with his quality and reputation.

Only Wales have a national coach who is not under microscopic examination. In Warren Gatland's case, it is just his ankles that are suffering that sort of scrutiny after his calamitous accident at home in New Zealand. Robert Howley takes charge for the tour to Australia, but the pressure is off Wales after their commendable World Cup campaign followed by that Six Nations Grand Slam. They have a largely young, exciting squad and could give Australia some serious problems. It is within their reach to win one of the tests.

That leaves France but after a shocking Six Nations and long, long season they're again in disarray. They're not even thinking about their trip to Argentina yet - this weekend sees the semifinals of the French Championship with the final next weekend. In French eyes, that is called getting your priorities right.

- NZ Herald

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