Ian Ritchie picking between apples and pears for England coaching job

In rugby terms, it does not get much bigger than this.

Within a week, give or take a few days, Ian Ritchie has to take a decision that could make or break the 2015 World Cup in England.

For the next global gathering to be a success, England have to be very strong – and to be very strong Ritchie, the new boy at the Rugby Football Union, cannot afford to pick the wrong coach. The problem is, he has nothing solid to work on. In terms of guaranteeing success, Stuart Lancaster versus Nick Mallett is a series of imponderables.

On one side you have a guy who has, to use the phrase of the week, lifted England out of the gutter of the last World Cup in New Zealand, but has done nothing concrete to suggest he can take England from being a qualified success in a very ordinary Six Nations to World Cup winners. On the other hand you have a man with a glowing CV, but whose most successful years were up to 10 years ago.

Eight weeks ago it seemed a forgone conclusion, as Mallett was the only contender deemed to have the heavyweight CV demanded by the RFU and their new chief executive. However, since the start of the Six Nations, Lancaster has not only caused second thoughts among many at Twickenham, but to rugby's masses he has become a hot favourite for the job.

Ritchie promised that the interview process would remove any emotional attachment to short-term results and look objectively at each candidate's credentials – but how easy is that to do given that, in the case of Lancaster, it is all we have to go on?

There is no question over what Lancaster has achieved as interim coach. Taking a side who, after the World Cup, were pretty hard to like never mind support, he has re-engaged them with the rugby public and established a new work ethic perfectly framed around the selfless qualities of his captain, Chris Robshaw.

The decision to remove the team from the luxury of their Portuguese training camp to his local club in Leeds was inspired, and went a long way to distancing them from any past misdemeanours. Add to that some brave selections and fresh-faced role models such as Owen Farrell, and the transformation was well on its way.

After the four wins out of five in the Six Nations – and a last-minute TMO decision the difference between losing and possibly drawing against the grand slam champions, Wales – you may question why Ritchie has not already put a contract in front of Lancaster. But question marks do remain. For a start, England must take steps towards a successful attacking framework, which was absent during this campaign.

It is difficult to compare Lancaster's CV with any other applicant's because it does not illustrate the proven track record of achievement elsewhere. Lancaster's appointment as the RFU's head of elite player development in 2008, after a difficult year as Leeds's director of rugby, removed him from the weekly grind of club rugby and the demanding requirement to post results. He retained coaching the England Saxons within his job description.

Others, such as Jim Mallinder, have trodden similar routes, spending time learning their trade with successful stints with the RFU and the Saxons before returning to club rugby. But it is here that the demanding nature of weekly results can often damage a reputation. In some quarters, Mallinder's failure to land the Heineken Cup with Northampton last year has been seen as a barrier to him becoming the England boss. Lancaster's role at the RFU sheltered him from that.

Mallett has been subject to criticism for not significantly changing the fortunes of Italian rugby during his recent four-year tenure. Before that, his coaching credentials stand up to the closest of scrutiny, with a record‑breaking 17 consecutive Test wins in charge of the Springboks, including a Tri-Nations tournament and a 52-10 win over the French in Paris. Add consecutive domestic titles with Stade Français and it is a stellar coaching CV.

What is very clear during the interview process is that Ritchie will not have been able to compare like for like and the deciding factors will probably rely on the candidates' ability to convince the panel regarding their shortcomings.

Lancaster will have had to illustrate how he proposes to maintain the gains achieved over this championship and, more importantly, show within his proposed coaching setup how he can make up the shortfall in experience and technical delivery in attack. Whispers of Wayne Smith stating he would be prepared to work with either man if asked will have done him no harm.

Mallett will need all his managerial experience to show how he intends to nurture the harmony within the current squad established by Lancaster and take them to the next level – and how he will capture the "mood of a nation" that is behind Lancaster.

The proven track record of Mallett should just take him ahead in the contest, but Lancaster is making quite a charge on the outside. Either way Ritchie, in his first month in office, will make a decision that will shape England's fortunes for years to come.

Dean Ryan played No8 for Saracens, Wasps, Newcastle and Bristol, and won six caps for England

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dean Ryan, for The Observer on Saturday 24th March 2012 23.00 Europe/London

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