Bill Sweeney, the Rugby Football Union chief executive, intends to appoint an English successor to Eddie Jones, in effect ruling out a move for a big-hitting overseas replacement such as Warren Gatland or Rassie Erasmus.
Sweeney has given his backing to Jones – whose contract runs through to the 2023 World Cup – to continue despite a torrid Six Nations campaign and though the Australian’s position will be kept under constant review the RFU’s plan is to appoint his successor next summer. The new coach could even work under Jones at the World Cup in France before taking over.
Sweeney also revealed the union has set up a “war room” to assess the credentials of all English coaches, working domestically and abroad. While Andy Farrell and Shaun Edwards fit into the latter category, a move for either coach appears difficult considering the intention is to make an appointment in the lead up to next year’s World Cup, when they will be immersed with Ireland and France respectively.
The RFU’s criteria would best suit someone such as Steve Borthwick, formerly Jones’s assistant and the head coach at Leicester, who top the Premiership table.
Erasmus has recently expressed interest in the role after next year’s World Cup and Gatland, the former Lions and Wales coach, is seen by many as the ideal candidate. Sweeney, however, explained that the RFU intends to take a homegrown route and that he had not approached the New Zealander about the job.
“We believe we’ve got such a wealth of English coaches in the game,” said Sweeney. “As a leading rugby nation we should be developing English coaches and an English style of play. That should be long-term and therefore the preference would be to have an English setup as far as I’m concerned. We’ve got a war room that’s got every English coach you can imagine – based here and based internationally. We’ve got an advanced succession plan in place.”
While Sweeney will ultimately be responsible for the appointment, the RFU’s performance director, Conor O’Shea, is working closely with Nigel Redman, the former Bath lock who has experience in coaching succession across Olympic sport. O’Shea cited how Fabien Galthié was named as Jacques Brunel’s successor in April 2019 and was on the France coaching staff the following month before taking over after the World Cup in Japan.
“The plan for us will be to appoint that coach before summer 2023,” said O’Shea. “Whether that’s embedding them into the programme or taking a helicopter view, that’s a discussion to be had. We would like to think we will be appointing them in the lead up to 2023. We have so many top English coaches who are in a great position. Eddie has worked with Steve [Borthwick], Neal [Hatley], Gussy [Paul Gustard]. You look across the Premiership and then you see the quality of people overseas. I want them to be English and I believe [they] should be.
“The rationale is we need to appoint so we have got time to embed the new coaching team and allow them to hit the ground running. Eddie is fully aware and knows what we want to do. There will be some people who say that will disturb the World Cup prep because people will be looking over their shoulder. Galthié was appointed before the 2019 World Cup and it’s the right thing to do because we need to get ready for the 2024 Six Nations.”
Sweeney said that ideally Jones’s successor would be a less controversial figure, but denied suggestions Jones has entirely lost the support of England fans and defended his decision to release a book this year in which he openly criticised members of the squad, including Maro Itoje and Ollie Lawrence. Jones also wrote that Sweeney “has to trust me because, if you’ve never coached in elite sport before, how can you tell a head coach he’s wrong? It would be the height of arrogance.”
Sweeney said: “If you could create your nirvana, you’d have a coach who every single fan in the country absolutely loves. He’d have heritage in 17 different counties so they’d love him in Yorkshire, they’d love him in Cornwall. That would be fantastic. You’re not always going to get that.
“Gareth Southgate has been fantastic for the FA with his rapport and the rebuilding of that organisation. I wouldn’t write off Eddie completely in terms of the fans. I know he’s controversial and he polarises massively but I don’t think every fan in the country hates him.
“I don’t think [his book] undermined his relationship with any of the current England players. I think he was saying he would think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on his selection or to critique him on how he picks his teams.
“Am I going to have a deep debate with Eddie about whether you should pick [Freddie] Steward or whether you should pick Marcus [Smith]? No, but I can challenge him on things, particularly when results go in the wrong direction.”