It may be a touch unfair – albeit good fun – to imagine the Succession screenwriters are overseeing the Rugby Football Union’s transition to life after Eddie Jones. No prizes for guessing who fulfils the Logan Roy role and there seem parallels too, between Kendall and Steve Borthwick, someone who has at times appeared the natural successor but about whom doubts over his suitability to be top dog have lingered.
Sometimes though, life at the RFU can seem stranger than fiction. The chief executive, Bill Sweeney, and the performance director, Conor O’Shea, were last week at pains to point out that there is a robust succession plan in place. It is apparently called Project Everest, there is a “war room” that features “contracts and all sorts of things” relating to potential candidates and the RFU wants to appoint an Englishman. Ideally, an entire English coaching team and the plan would be to make the appointment next summer. They may well work under Jones in the run-up to the 2023 World Cup and apparently he is happy at the prospect. It is also criteria which, on the face of it, makes Andy Farrell a far harder appointment to make given his current commitments.
If the Succession comparison is a stretch so, too, is the RFU’s suggestion that such a model has worked in France recently and can therefore be copied. Fabien Galthié was, in April of 2019, announced as Jacques Brunel’s successor after the World Cup later that year and joined his coaching staff in May. The comparisons should stop there, however, because Brunel was a stop-gap appointment, out of his depth and in need of support. France were an unholy mess during the 2019 Six Nations and already the priority was the 2023 World Cup which they will host. Jones, on the other hand, would not countenance someone exerting as much influence from the back seat as Galthié did and the RFU cannot afford to treat next year’s tournament as a free hit. The insistence on making an appointment in advance of next year’s World Cup is largely to avoid bedding-in problems before the 2024 Six Nations. But that in turn raises the question as to why that championship is more important than the one just gone given the obvious preoccupation with the World Cup already.
Maybe a more accurate comparison is with the Football Association in the early 2000s. Sven-Göran Eriksson was appointed as the first foreign England manager to replace Kevin Keegan, a popular figure but ultimately exposed at that level. Eriksson’s successor was Steve McClaren – the FA lurching back to the homegrown route – but after that appointment proved disastrous, Fabio Capello was chosen. In a similar vein to Keegan, Stuart Lancaster departed after his limitations were laid bare before the RFU pursued an overseas solution. They seem intent now, on an English appointment next year but if that does not work out, what price a heavy-hitter from abroad in the form of Warren Gatland or Rassie Erasmus?
The RFU’s stated plan is for long-term succession. O’Shea talks a good game and speaks of collaboration with clubs, of a seamless progression of coaches through the ranks so that there is no need for chief executives to jet off to Cape Town with blank cheques to ensure they get their man. But the RFU must forgive the cynicism given how regularly the messaging and the stated ambition has changed since Jones was appointed by Ian Ritchie in late 2015. The fact that Sweeney is the fourth chief executive Jones has worked under hardly helps and only reinforces the idea that ultimately it is he who wields the power, but even the incumbent head of the RFU struck a significantly different tone when discussing succession in 2019 before the World Cup.
In fairness to Sweeney, he was not long in the role and dealing with a situation that was not his making. When Jones was appointed he saw having his assistants ready to take over as a “fundamental part of my job”. That never materialised – you could argue the assistants are just as much to blame but the turnover rate of them suggests the problem lies elsewhere and muddying the waters was Jones’s desire to coach the British & Irish Lions in 2021. It was part of the reason he was given a two-year extension through to 2021 by Ritchie’s successor, Steve Brown – but Jones publicly put his foot in it and ended any hopes of the Lions chiefs looking beyond Warren Gatland.
Still, Jones was supposed to stay on until 2021 but take a back seat on the 2020 tour of Japan as the successor was brought up to speed. That tour, of course, never happened due to Covid, Jones had decided after the 2019 World Cup that he had another four-year cycle in him and Sweeney, having seen England reach the final in Japan, duly obliged. Prior plans were shelved, John Mitchell abruptly left the building, Project Everest was spawned and Jones – despite consecutive torrid Six Nations campaigns – still has the backing of the RFU and almost certainly will do through to the end of England’s involvement at the 2023 World Cup.
Which brings us back to Borthwick, who, you sense was the man the RFU had in mind, way back in 2016, when Jones was supposed to bring through a successor. He is the coach who ticks all the boxes for the RFU at present and, though the union has cooled on the idea that Jones’s replacement must have international experience, Borthwick does from his time in Japan. His coaching stock continues to rise at Leicester but he can come across as robotic – more automaton than autocrat. Senior figures at the RFU have acknowledged as much in the past but he is likely to be prominent on a list that could also include Richard Cockerill, who has kept his powder conspicuously dry for one so usually forthright since joining Jones’s coaching staff.
The trouble for Sweeney and O’Shea is that, for all their talk of homegrown succession planning there are not many names to add to the shortlist. Rob Baxter has never really appeared interested and arguably the strongest two candidates – a rejuvenated Lancaster and Farrell – are working in Ireland. It is unclear whether Lancaster would fancy another crack but it seems highly unlikely Farrell could be appointed in advance of Ireland’s World Cup campaign in France. It is also worth noting that Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt are also employed in Ireland, ensuring the four coaches given long-term contract renewals in the buildup to the 2015 World Cup are all now contributing to the re-emergence of one of England’s closest rivals.
If anything, those contracts and the subsequent home World Cup debacle should demonstrate to Sweeney and O’Shea that much can change in a short period of time. Indeed, O’Shea acknowledged as much last week which raises the question as to why the RFU’s criteria is already narrow enough to rule a wealth of strong contenders out. There were the usual caveats and nothing is set in stone but it seems an odd policy to now trumpet a war room when the battle plan has changed so often over the past six years.
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