The Coaches: Six driven men in search of one winning formula
The leadership skills of every coach will be put to the test as determination, discipline and consistency are crucial, writes Matt Williams
England head coach Stuart Lancaster.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Italy head coach Jacques Brunel
Scotland head coach Scott Johnson
Wales head coach Warren Gatland
France head coach Philippe Saint-Andre
In the months leading up to the beginning of a Six Nations championship, there is a mass of research, planning and preparation undertaken by every head coach and their staff. From prescribing the contents of every meal, to recording and then decoding the opposition lineout calls, the depth and detail of the preparation are breathtaking.
Despite all this detail, it will be the coach who can simplify his message to his players and muster that indefinable quality, “momentum,” that will create winning performances. Success in the Six Nations does not always go to the most talented team. We saw that with France finishing last in 2013. The winning goes to the team that is the most determined, disciplined and consistent.
The leadership of every coach will be tested.
By examining the strengths and weakness of the coaches, then defining what a good championship performance will look like, we will gain a glimpse into what might be, before the battle changes teams destinies in the greatest annual rugby competition in the world.
England Head Coach
Strengths: Lancaster was a very low-profile applicant for the England coaching position. Expectations on him creating success were low. Happily for him, he has over-delivered. This England side are tough competitors. There is no easy game against them as they have found the key to consistency. This is the major ingredient in winning the championship. Lancaster has his team playing a dogged, tough, low-risk game that his players are comfortable with. The plan works because it reflects his players’ ability. It is not theory, it is a livable truth.
Weaknesses: Despite the Premiership’s obvious advantages for English rugby, England’s talent pool is surprisingly shallow. In the building towards the coming World Cup, if Lancaster gives in to the calls for England to play a total running game, he will fail. England do not have the talent to play like New Zealand, but they have the heart to be dogged.
What performance can be counted as a successful Six Nations? A top two finish is what is demanded of Lancaster. To finish third will place great pressure on him in the lead up to RWC in England.
Probable finishing place. Third. The pivotal game for England will be week one against France in Paris. An English win here will eliminate France from the tournament and create momentum for England to take on Wales in round three. However, I believe France will prevail.
France Head Coach
Strengths: A highly experienced coach, he has enhanced the performance of every club he has coached, but not the national team. The French rugby community is supportive of him as both a coach and a man. The French team returning to their beautiful traditional Adidas jersey is a refection of Saint-Andre’s mission. He is attempting to move the team back towards the “middle path” of pragmatic, tough, attacking French rugby.
Weaknesses: With the Top 14 full of foreign “halves” like Johnny Sexton, and several high-profile injuries to players like Morgan Parra, Saint-Andre’s half back combination options are reduced. He has rushed in the 22-year-old outhalf Jules Plisson, from Stade Français and the journeyman Remi Tales from Castre. Their ability to successfully game manage a high-pressure Six Nations match is highly questionable. Saint-Andre’s non-selection of Trinh-Duc and Michalak means the on-field generals are, at best, questionable.
What performance can be counted as a successful Six Nations? If Saint-Andre does not produce a top two finish he will come under great pressure. The depth of French rugby in Top 14 is thinning and the French national team set-up must adopt systems used in Ireland and Australia that manage a small number of top players for the good of the national team. He also has to win. For the first time in his career he is a loser. The pressure is telling.
Probable finishing place. Second. I simply cannot see France being as poor in this championship as they were last year. A win against England in the opening round is essential for France to gain much-needed self-belief. The round three match against Wales in Cardiff will be the pivotal day for Saint-Andre. The winner in Cardiff will likely win the Six Nations.
Ireland Head Coach
Strengths: Joe has a clear picture in his mind of how he wants Ireland to play. It will be very similar to how Leinster played in the years under his stewardship. The question is has he enough time to get the players to share in his vision? His senior players believe in him. He is an excellent communicator with a level head and a calm nature that drives his leadership style. In time, Joe will develop into a top-line international coach. In time . . .
Weaknesses: Joe learnt a lot in the November internationals. International rugby is very different to provincial rugby. Joe is still adjusting to that change. He will understand how to manage the international game a lot more by the end of the Six Nations. His first Six Nations will be a massive learning curve.
Like all of us, Joe is unsure which Ireland team will turn up. The team that were so uninterested and mediocre against Australia or the aggressive, motivated, physically intimidating team that should have, could have but “how the bloody hell did we not” defeat New Zealand. It is the same problem of inconsistency that plagued Declan Kidney. Ireland’s inconsistency is the over-riding factor in the lack of international success since 2000. It is a cultural plague for which Joe must find a cure.
What performance can be counted as a successful Six Nations? A top two finish, but I do not believe that will happen. France and England away is tough mission. Wales are at their zenith, yet Dublin will provide Brian O’Driscoll with a cherished opportunity to gain revenge on Warren Gatland’s decision to drop him for the less talented Jonathon Davis on the Lions tour. While winning all three matches against England, France and Wales is possible, it is also highly unlikely. A very good Six Nations would be winning all home matches and being competitive in London and Paris.
Probable finishing place. Fourth. This is the tough year of the draw for Ireland. Perhaps Brian and Paul can inspire improbable wins in Paris and London, but it is unlikely. The pivotal match for Ireland will be the home game in round three against Wales. A loss here will devastate the championship for Ireland. A win would spark the team for the last rounds.
Italy Head Coach
Strengths: Brunel is a highly experienced career coach. He was the successful forwards coach of France under Bernard Laporte. He won the Top 14 championship with Perpignan. Italy have improved under his guidance with breakthrough victories, none more memorable than their wins over France and Ireland last year.
Weaknesses: Italy is a great place to live but not a great place to coach the national team. It is a great place to be the forwards coach but a very bad place to be the backs coach. They can’t play winning international rugby with the current lack of creative attacking players in the Italian back line. Brunel cannot cocoon himself in the joy of the “engine room” and the eight. As head coach he must look at his back division . . . and reach for another bottle of Chianti. He simply does not have the calibre of players in the back division to match the quality of his forwards. If he did, that would allow Italy to win consistently.
What performance can be counted as a successful Six Nations? It is Italy’s tough year with only two home matches against England and Scotland. A home win against Scotland is essential.
Probable finishing place. Fifth, with one win.
Scotland Head Coach
Strengths: Scott knows his stuff. He has had more clubs than Tiger Woods. He has been assistant or head coach at the New South Wales Waratahs, Wales, the Wallabies, the USA Eagles, Ospreys and now Scotland.
Scott is an original thinker who, like me, was raised in the Sydney grade competition to play, coach, breathe and live “the running game”. This was reflected in Scotland being the second highest points scorers last season, behind Wales. Scotland finished third. Although this was gained with only two wins, one against Ireland.
Weaknesses. Over the years Scott has had a lot of titles. The one he has now is a hindrance. “Interim” head coach. With Vern Cotter arriving in the summer, Scott’s influence on the Scottish team has been weakened. Added to this is Scotland’s continued failure to create centres who can influence a game. This lack of midfield dominance is a millstone around Scott’s coaching and Scotland’s success.
What performance can be counted as a successful Six Nations? It is Scotland’s tough year, with only England and France at home. Any win will be a good one for the Scots. Perhaps their best chance is the opening match against Ireland. The Scots seem to know how to beat the men in green.
While this is unlikely and would be a disaster for Ireland, the only other hope for the Scots is to win in Rome. As Ireland found last year, the Italians are no easy beats.
Probable finishing place. Winless and sixth.
Wales Head Coach
Strengths: Since leaving Ireland, “Gatty” can do no wrong. Having just signed an extension to his Welsh contract, he is in total control of the Welsh staff and team selection. He is leading an organisation that he has moulded and created. His coaches are his former players with whom he has strong relationships. His players have delivered Grand Slams and a Lions series win for him. Their loyalty, trust, knowledge, experience and deep rugby wisdom are unquestionable.
Weaknesses: Usually at this point in rugby, just when you think you have it all covered, some situation will jump up and bloody your nose. But that is not a weakness that is an unforeseen circumstance. After suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that is being a career coach, Warren Gatland is riding high. More power to him.
What performance can be counted as a successful Six Nations? Winning the championship is expected. A Grand Slam would be the icing on the cake and is not beyond the Welsh.
Probable finishing place: Before the battle changes everything, the Welsh are firm favourites to win the championship. With a team of high-quality experienced players that have won the championship before, the title is there for Wales to lose.
A win away to Ireland in the second round would make the championship a reality and a win against England away in round four would open the door to a Grand Slam.