England are back at square one in their quest for a backs coach following Wayne Smith's decision to reject the offer of a role in Stuart Lancaster's management team.
Lancaster now admits the search for the new man will have to be postponed until after next month's tour to South Africa where Mike Catt will assist in a caretaker capacity.
Smith and Andy Farrell have both turned down a job which should rank among the most attractive in the world game. So far, though, the leading candidates are not biting. While Smith has pulled out primarily for family reasons, the withdrawals of himself and Farrell do not reflect brilliantly on the Rugby Football Union's negotiating skills. "Clearly it's disappointing," said Lancaster. "The experience he'd have brought would have been great."
Smith ultimately felt he could not leave his elderly parents and two university-age sons in New Zealand, describing it as "an incredibly difficult decision". It leaves the RFU no closer to finding a coach with the necessary experience and ability and attention will now switch to the likes of Leinster's Joe Schmidt and the former Italy and Japan coach John Kirwan. Alex King, Jim Mallinder, Leicester's Matt O'Connor and the ex-Wallaby fly-half Stephen Larkham will also be mentioned as possible alternatives. "To have someone from outside to challenge people is a good thing," said Lancaster. "I'm sure there will be a few CVs winging their way in."
Catt, in the meantime, has agreed to leave London Irish and mind the shop until the end of June. Suddenly, though, the five-match South Africa trip takes on a fresh significance. Should the team perform poorly in the three-Test series, Lancaster may find top-quality recruits even harder to attract. Perceptions matter in these situations and, even after an encouraging Six Nations campaign, not everyone seems to regard a role with England as a guarantee of health and happiness.
To a degree, Lancaster, and the RFU, have been simply unlucky. Both Farrell and Smith are intensely loyal men who felt they could not easily walk away from their current situations. There are still, as Lancaster pointed out, three full domestic seasons between now and the 2015 World Cup, in which to find someone with the necessary qualities. That man may even be the 40-year-old Catt himself; as Lancaster can testify, the best caretakers can very swiftly become indispensable.
The worst‑case scenario, though, is that Leinster, for example, will now look to protect its interests by persuading the outstanding Schmidt to sign a new long-term deal to replace his current one which expires next year. Ireland, in any case, are already sniffing in that direction. Of the other potential external candidates only Kirwan is not signed up but Lancaster insists he is "open-minded" and "will not rush" into any ill-advised decisions.
Instead he will proceed with Graham Rowntree and Catt at his elbow, assisted by his old Saxons lieutenants Jon Callard and Simon Hardy. The Port Elizabeth-born Catt will bring a mix of local and Test match knowledge, having represented England for 12 years as a player and shared in the 2003 World Cup victory. The feeling persists, though, that Lancaster will ultimately need more bodies to ease the considerable burden on his own shoulders.
He will have no fewer than 42 players under his command on tour, although some familiar names will be absent when the squad is announced next week. Tom Croft's neck injury has removed him from contention and Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes, Rob Webber, Calum Clark, Charlie Sharples and Joe Simpson have already been ruled out. A doubt also remains over Alex Corbisiero, who has had an operation on a biceps problem, but there is cheerier news for James Haskell and Danny Care, both in line for a recall.
Haskell is set to be selected despite currently playing his rugby for the Highlanders in New Zealand, while Care's determination to clean up his act off the field following a series of drink-related incidents will earn him a recall. "He regrets what has happened over the last six months … you've got to give people a second chance," said Lancaster.
Among the uncapped players poised to be included are the Wasps lock Joe Launchbury, the Harlequins front-row pair of Joe Marler and Joe Gray, London Irish's athletic back Jonathan Joseph and the Leicester centre Anthony Allen. The young Tigers' fly-half George Ford will not tour anywhere this summer, having been omitted from the Under-20 World Cup squad to allow him a proper pre-season period in which to work on his physical conditioning.
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