Wins needed for World Cup seeding, so do England… Stick or twist
No sooner had Ian Ritchie, the new chief executive of the RFU, settled at his desk on his first day in charge at Twickenham than he received a reminder of the most pressing issue he faces.
The IRB confirmed on Monday that England’s 19-12 defeat by Wales in Saturday’s tumultuous RBS Six Nations encounter at HQ means they have dropped to sixth in the world rankings. For Ritchie, this was not a welcome development to kick-start his tenure.
Yet, it serves to focus his mind on the priority task in the coming weeks — the appointment of the next, long-term England head coach. While this is a matter of overwhelming importance, not to be rushed, there is an underlying urgency.
Making his case: The job could go to Stuart Lancaster permanently
Short-term success or failure has the most profound long-term implications.
England's World Cup prospects are already hanging in the balance.
In order to avoid any of the big three nations in the pool stage of the tournament in 2015 — which will be held in England — they must be in the top four in the rankings by the end of this year.
If England are to have a chance of being one of the top seeds, they will need to win their remaining two games in the Six Nations — against Ireland and France — and then get good results in the three-Test series in South Africa before autumn internationals against New Zealand, Australia and Fiji.
England are two places below the top-four spot in the IRB list they are striving to secure by the end of this year, when the seedings are decided ahead of the draw for the home World Cup in 2015. Ritchie will know it is imperative for the greater good of the game that the host nation mount a compelling challenge, so the clock is ticking.
There are just nine Tests between now and when the world governing body will use their rankings to confirm the seedings.
England slumped to eighth in 2009, but sixth is not good enough if they are to avoid facing New Zealand, Australia or South Africa in their pool. Somehow, they must target five wins in this period, but seven of the nine games feature opposition ranked above them at present.
This scenario provides the pressurised backdrop to the deliberations of Ritchie and the other RFU kingmakers who are due to name a new head coach in April.
As the man in temporary charge, Stuart Lancaster is making a ‘live’ pitch via the displays of his overhauled England side in a championship campaign which has so far brought dogged away wins against Scotland and Italy and an improved display in defeat against Wales.
Audition time: Lancaster holds the job on an interim basis and has the chance to impress and keep the job
While another known contender, Nick Mallett, can rely on the power of his c.v. from stints coaching his native South Africa, Stade Francais and Italy, Lancaster does not have a gold-plated pedigree from front-line club or international rugby, but the way he has set about an onerous salvage operation means he deserves consideration.
He has made decisions with the bigger picture in mind, rather than the here-and-now of winning at all costs. He has promoted fresh talent with an eye on the build-up to 2015 and he has come down hard on ill-discipline after the controversies of the World Cup.
And he has shown he is willing to make brave calls — by ignoring the obvious choice of Toby Flood to replace the injured Charlie Hodgson last weekend, instead opting to thrust Owen Farrell into the No 10 shirt.
In the running: Nick Mallett is one of the favourites to be appointed on a full time basis
That gamble brought its rewards and every coach needs some luck, which Lancaster had in Edinburgh and Rome, if not always at Twickenham. There are many loud calls for the RFU to bring in a ‘name’; some sort of global colossus, but who are they
Mallett is one, although the best of his record is in earlier years. There are few others — Graham Henry and Wayne Smith don’t want the job, neither do leading domestic coaches such as Jim Mallinder and Conor O’Shea.
The danger is Ritchie and his advisers will be tempted to put an onus on perceived calibre above suitability. Former England hooker Brian Moore suggested the union will turn to a high-profile figure to cover their backs against possible future criticism.
Past and present: If England want to have a good chance of winning the World Cup as they did in 2003 then the current team (below) will have to improve on their results for the remainder of the year
It would be understandable after a chance was taken on a rookie Englishman, Martin Johnson, which didn’t work. But Lancaster is in the mix on merit. Would England have done better against Wales if Mallett had been in charge Not necessarily, and that is all that counts.
It may work in Lancaster’s favour that there is an onus on early results, as keeping him on provides continuity and stability. What he needs is a win against France or Ireland. A return of three victories would be a pass mark in the circumstances, but failure to beat any of the three stronger sides would leave him with no claim on the job.
Lancaster must stay true to his bold selection instincts and keep the balance between loyalty and blind faith.
The man in charge: Ian Richie has started his role as Chief Executive of the RFU
He must retain Farrell at fly-half and decide whether to demote Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs. He must keep the precious spirit, but free his team to branch out from their Saracens-inspired game-plan, to score tries without charge-downs.
He needs things to fall in his favour because on reputation he shouldn’t be in the running, but has earned the right to be.
Scotland’s Rory Lamont had surgery in Edinburgh on Monday after breaking a leg in the loss to France. Ireland are confident their players who picked up minor injuries in the win over Italy — Rob Kearney (groin), Gordon D’Arcy (shoulder), Cian Healy (jaw) and Sean O’Brien (ankle) should be fit to face France in Paris on Sunday.
Wales hooker Huw Bennett is leaving the Ospreys to join Lyon.