The news that Rob Howley will lead Wales’ tour to Australia after Warren Gatland’s recent domestic accident is fairly mundane. Its wider implications, however, are not.
It is considered all but certain that Gatland will appoint Shaun Edwards and Graham Rowntree as his defence and forwards coaches for next year’s Lions tour. What is not clear is who will fill the role of attack coach. While Gatland could take this on himself, he is primarily a forwards coach and strategist, not someone who coaches the technical side of attack. This leaves an intriguing gap in the Lions coaching make-up.
The obvious candidate is Rob Howley. He is Wales’ attack guru and was on the 2009 Lions tour along with the three aforementioned coaches. However, he has already been named as the joint leader (along with Robin McBryde) of the Welsh team in 2013, when Gatland will be on his Lions sabbatical year. This includes not only the 6 Nations but also the summer tour to Japan, which coincides with the Lions fixtures Down Under.
It is not impossible, of course, that Howley could still travel with the Lions. Being named as the caretaker of Wales does not prohibit being subsequently named as a Lions coach, and this may be thinking behind Robin McBryde’s joint appointment for the 6 Nations, especially as McBryde took charge of Wales’ 2009 tour to the USA in the absence of Gatland, Edwards and Howley.
If this is the expected progression, however, it seems rather strange that Howley has been given sole charge of Wales’ summer tour to Australia. This would be a great chance to give McBryde further experience as the head guy, in preparation for his joint and then single custodianship next year. Although it is firmly in the realms of speculation, it seems to me that Howley’s appointment for the 2012 Australia tour puts his Lions participation in doubt.
Regardless of the lack of certainty here, this gives an intriguing opportunity to muse about alternatives. The unfortunate truth is that there really aren’t that many. Scotland can’t buy a try at the moment, which probably discounts Gregor Townsend, although he has fine Lions pedigree as a player. I’ve got to be honest and say that before researching piece I’d never actually heard of Gert Smal, who seems to be Ireland’s attack coach, so he would be a shock choice as well.
This apparent dearth of candidates adds considerable weight to the position of England attack coach. After Andy Farrell decided to stay with Saracens (and, although his work on defence during the 6 Nations was outstanding, anyone who saw Sarries plug away at uninspiring plan A against Clermont for 80 minutes won’t be devastated to see him exit the frame), there has been much speculation about the final part of Lancaster’s preferred triumvirate structure. Waikato Chiefs coach Wayne Smith is the favourite to get the job, especially after masterminding the All Blacks’ World Cup triumph, but he isn’t available until the Autumn. This necessitates a temporary coach for the South Africa tour and if Stuart Lancaster has demonstrated anything, it’s that possession is nine-tenths of the law in coaching.
If Smith is the RFU and Lancaster’s first choice, it wouldn’t surprise me to see either of Mike Catt or Brian Ashton travel to South Africa. Catt has international pedigree and is respected by the players, although he is relatively inexperienced and has not coached above club level. Ashton, meanwhile, was the brain behind England’s unstoppable attack patterns in the Woodward era – something he did so successfully that he became England head coach and led them to a World Cup Final. In many ways, and still assuming that Howley is unavailable, Ashton would be the most likely person to travel with the Lions, both on ability and pedigree.
Although this is largely speculation and educated guesswork, the thought of a Gatland – Ashton – Edwards – Rowntree coaching team is extremely exciting (not to mention Lancaster – Ashton – Rowntree for England). There would also be a sense of justice in giving Ashton, a committed servant of the game and a revolutionary attacking thinker, the chance to redeem himself after his appalling treatment at the hands of the RFU in 2008. Although it remains to seen whether Ashton is willing either to re-enter elite rugby or to talk to the RFU again, he did suggest himself as an interim coach for both the 6 Nations and the South Africa tour in the press. This suggests that a shot at redemption might just be as appealing to him as it is to the rest of us.