Iain Morrison: International coach travel on rocky road

Ian McGeechan. Picture: TSPL
Ian McGeechan. Picture: TSPL
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National ties routinely cut as top men take their talents where the money is

It’s sometimes tricky to recognise someone out of context, like meeting your dentist at the gym, but those with sharp eyes will have clocked a familiar face amongst the Argentine coaching staff this last week in Wellington. Sir Graham Henry was in the Pumas’ corner plotting the downfall of the same New Zealand team he coached for eight long years.

Scotland Coach, Englishman, Andy Robinson. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Scotland Coach, Englishman, Andy Robinson. Picture: Ian Rutherford

It’s a funny one, a head scratcher, make no mistake. After 20 years at the top of his profession surely Henry did not turn his coat inside out simply because he’s struggling to buy the next round of Steinlager. Anyway, he is already contracted to the NZRU to work with the Auckland Blues next season so why become “technical assistant” to the Pumas?

If you and I don’t know quite what to make of the move, then we are in good company because neither do the All Black players that Henry led to the World Cup last year.

“Laughter, disappointment, I suppose. There was a whole range of emotions,” said his successor Steve Hansen when asked about the reaction in the All Black camp to seeing Henry lock arms in a huddle with the Argentine players. And that is the clue here: emotions are uppermost. We feel that Henry has been disloyal even if we struggle to construct an intellectual argument to back it up in the modern, professional era.

And so to Scotland, where the head coach is English, although a foreign coach is hardly unique. Wales, the Lions and even Australia are all led by Kiwis, Italy are overseen by Frenchman Jacques Brunel, England’s Nigel Melville remains director of USA rugby and Scot Richie Dixon took Georgia to the World Cup. What is a little surprising is that the team of coaches surrounding and supporting Andy Robinson at Murrayfield boasts almost every accent except a local one. The new attack coach Scott Johnston is Australian, as is the recently acquired defence coach Matt Taylor. The scrum coach is Italian via a South African upbringing so Massimo Cuttitta utilises several accents all at the one time, although there is no mistaking the Ulster brogue of conditioning coach Neil Potts.

The last 15 players to take to the field against Samoa in the summer were demonstrably Scottish, with the one obvious exception of Dutchman Tim Visser, but it was left to manager Gavin Scott and kicking coach Duncan Hodge to bring some local know-how to the Scottish management team.

Further down the pyramid, the situation is mixed. Irishman Michael Bradley and Englishman Neil Back coach Edinburgh while two Scots in Gregor Townsend and Shade Munro rule the roost through in the west.

Scotland gave the game of rugby sevens to the world but now has English international Phil Greening coaching the national team.

If the coaching side of Scottish rugby is top-heavy with foreign accents then so, too, is the administration. The president, Alan Lawson, and his deputy, Donald Macleod, are both “well-kent faces” but, on the executive side of the fence, locals are few and far between. SRU chairman Sir Moir Lockhead is a Yorkshireman and still sounds it despite several decades spent in the north-east of Scotland. Chief executive Mark Dodson hails from Manchester and the SRU’s performance director Graham Lowe is a Kiwi with a background in strength and conditioning.

Scottish rugby, at least the elite end of it, is run almost exclusively by outsiders. But the big question is: does that matter?

Not according to past president Ian McLauchlan, the man largely responsible for getting Lockhead on board.

“For a start I’m not sure you can call Sir Moir an outsider after he’s spent so many years in Scotland.

“What matters is getting the right man for the job now that rugby is a global, fully professional game. It’s not important where they come from. We only have two professional teams so it is difficult for Scots to break into professional coaching. They have to move away to do so, like Bryan Redpath and Carl Hogg have done. We have to hire the best man for the job regardless.”

No one wants to be a parochial, narrow-minded “little Scotlander” but sporting nationalism has to mean something otherwise why would we bother with internationals or, for that matter, the Olympics? On a purely intellectual level it’s difficult to argue against hiring the best man for the job but, from an emotional standpoint, we’d prefer a few more Scots about the place.

Admittedly some of the incomers only got their posts after locals had fallen short of expectations. Andy Robinson (47 per cent win ratio) replaced Frank Hadden (39 per cent). Scott Johnson took over from Townsend as attack coach, although it’s too early to judge his impact. Mark Dodson has been a breath of fresh air and optimism after the somewhat dour regime of Gordon McKie, and Graham Sheil failed to get the Scotland sevens team into a single cup quarter-final last year, so he made way for Greening.

If these non-Scots do a significantly better job than the men they have replaced then nobody cares if they are from Aberdeen or Abu Dhabi. It is when the incomers fall flat on their face that the mood can turn quickly, as Australia’s Kiwi coach Robbie Deans has discovered in recent weeks. Only when results have gone against him have people started to question Deans’ ability and the same will quickly be true for Murrayfield’s foreign legion should things turn sour.

But is the modern, professional game only about results, results and nothing but results? One man begs to differ.

“Results are important,” says Jim Telfer, once at the heart of Murrayfield himself, “but they are not the only thing. I believe the SRU is under an obligation to the rugby community at large to produce good coaches and administrators as well as good players.

“I think having some Scots at Murrayfield is important otherwise you move too far away from your roots. I think it is important to be able to connect with people throughout the Scottish game and some of the folk in Murrayfield don’t do that,” says Telfer, although he stopped short of naming names.

Telfer famously phoned his old friend and colleague Ian McGeechan to persuade him not to coach England in the late 1990s but he stresses that he didn’t object to McGeechan coaching England per se, he just didn’t want him coaching England instead of Scotland.

“Geech” is now a consultant for the RFU, preparing a paper on the way forward for elite English rugby, and no one appears exercised by the fact. In many ways, the Anglo-Scot is typical of the modern coach, flitting from one post to another as doors open and close on the merry-go-round that is modern rugby.

McGeechan made his name in Scotland before heading to Northampton. He returned to Scotland for another stint before joining Wasps in 2003. He has since been director of rugby at Bath, a consultant at their West County rivals Gloucester, and is now executive chairman of Leeds Carnegie, while simultaneously working for the RFU and squeezing in several Lions tours along the way. McGeechan moves with the money so perhaps the same is true of Henry and everyone else? Nationality is nothing, money is motivation and loyalty is the preserve of folklore. I understand the game is professional and everyone has a right to fill their boots as best they can but, at the risk of coming across like a character in an Arthur Miller play, I imagined that rugby people in general and Sir “Ted” Henry in particular might be driven by slightly loftier ideals.

The point is that, if coaches don’t give a fig for national loyalty, it makes it much harder for them to insist that the fans or players think any differently, which may explain why Sonny Bill Williams is earning a king’s ransom in Japan instead of playing for the All Blacks.