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Switching Allegiances: International Rugby’s Coaching Turncoats

BAGSHOT, ENGLAND - MARCH 20: Eddie Jones, the England head coach poses with the Six Nations trophy after their Grand Slam victory against France at Pennyhill Park on March 20, 2016 in Bagshot, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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With Australian Eddie Jones having a perfect start to his time with England, the RFU will probably be wondering why they didn’t think about hiring an overseas coach sooner after achieving only one Grand Slam in thirteen years. Yet, he isn’t the only ‘turncoat’ to have achieved success.

Only New Zealand, France and South Africa have never had a foreign-born coach in charge of their national team, although France came close in allegedly considering Clive Woodward before opting for Toulouse legend Guy Noves as their latest coach. Similarly, South Africa will probably be kicking themselves that they let Jones get away when he was briefly in charge of Super Rugby side the Stormers.

But overseas coaches have always been a contentious issue in the world of Test rugby. Indeed, when Eddie Jones was signed up as an assistant coach for the 2007 World Cup with South Africa, he was apparently not allowed to wear the famous Springbok blazer worn by all backroom staff as he was not born in the country. Instead, the Australian wore a tracksuit.

BAGSHOT, ENGLAND - MARCH 17: Eddie Jones, the England head coach, looks on during the England training session held at Pennyhill Park on March 17, 2016 in Bagshot, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In New Zealand there has been little need for looking outside their own borders when there are so many quality coaches to be found across the two islands. When you think that New Zealanders are now in charge of the Wales, Scotland and Ireland teams, as well as others including Georgia, Japan, USA, Canada and Fiji, the influence of Kiwi coaches across the globe is enormous.

In particular in Wales, the WRU has had a penchant for New Zealand coaches since the dawn of professionalism. Since 1995 the national governing body has employed two Australians and three New Zealanders as head coach, including World Cup-winning coaches in Graham Henry and current All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen. With a number of similarities between the two nations, it appears Wales has always hoped to emulate its Antipodean rivals.

Current coach Warren Gatland, who has been in the position since 2007 and is one of the longest serving international head coaches in the history of the sport, has been the most successful: winning three Six Nations titles and two Grand Slams in the process.

South Africa v Wales - Quarter Final: Rugby World Cup 2015

As for Ireland, they too once had the aforementioned Gatland as their head coach, although he was still developing as an international coach at the time before going on to have unprecedented success with Wasps. Indeed, he only won 18 of his 38 games in charge.

But the Irish also recruited former England attack coach Brian Ashton for one year, originally on a six-year contract. However, a series of poor performances saw him leave the position. New Zealander Joe Schmidt has been by far the most successful of Ireland’s overseas coaches.

In Scotland, the SRU has come to rely on foreign-born coaches with Frank Hadden the only homegrown head coach since Ian McGeechan stepped down in 2003. Since that time they have had Australian Matt Williams, Englishman Andy Robinson, interim coach Scott Johnson and now New Zealander Vern Cotter overseeing its development as a team.

Vern Cotter

Even the mighty Wallabies, winners of two Rugby World Cups and one of the most consistent teams in international rugby, flirted with a non-Australian when appointing Kiwi Robbie Deans in 2008. Deans left the job in 2013 after losing the Lions tour series, but at the same time had a win percentage better than that of Jones, equal to John Connolly and certainly better than Ewen McKenzie. Only now with Michael Cheika in charge have things started to improve, yet his credibility has now been hit by his team’s 3-0 series loss to England at home – led by an Australian.

Italy – always on the cusp of establishing itself as a member of rugby’s top table but never quite achieving it – hasn’t had an Italian-born coach since 1999, with two New Zealanders, two Frenchmen, a South African and now an Irishman in charge. All in all, it sounds like a deeply contrived walking-into-a-bar-related joke.

Now with Jones enjoying such success with England, it is likely that the proliferation of overseas coaches in international rugby will continue, but it is surely part of a professional paradigm that countries will select on merit over nationality. International rugby’s turncoats are a sad indictment of the coaching development pathways in many countries, but also a necessity in the cut-throat and results-driven nature of international rugby.

Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena

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