The Expiry Date of a Professional Rugby Head Coach

ASM Clermont Auvergne v RC Toulon - European Rugby Champions Cup
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Undoubtedly, over the past 18 months, there has been a startling amount of significant shifts at the top of some of Europe’s biggest Rugby Union institutions. Directors of Rugby and Head Coaches are increasingly at the mercy of board members and chairman’s who have seemingly adopted a brash sense of “hiring and firing” when times get tough.

Not only do supporters leak confidence in the hierarchy when these decisions are made, but the players are put under further pressure to perform well despite inconsistency in their coaching teams.

A Growing Trend in Pro-Rugby

So why is this becoming a growing trend? Is the manner of the sport changing? Or are big-wigs and financial ploys the reason why there is such a short expiry date on Head Coaches these days?

To begin with one of the most recent, and turbulent, shifts in the world of rugby, we look at Leicester Tigers. Renowned as one of England’s most traditional and tenacious teams, they have become somewhat of an unsure side in the past few months. This began with the sacking of Richard Cockerill in January, who had sat as Director of Rugby since 2009 and forwards coach four years previously. A Tigers fellow through and through, the former England hooker left the club after being threatened with his position only a month previously.

The form of the side had been less than impressive. A string of defeats accompanied a few mild victories and there was a general feeling that the new year ought to bring new challenges. Cockers was gone.

In his absence, Head Coach Aaron Mauger was able to implement strategies and ideas that had been hindered by Cockerill, who by his time had swiftly moved on to pastures new. There was a fresh feeling at the club – certainly felt by myself on a press event visit towards the end of January. Players seemed energised and positive about the set-up, their form began to improve and there was a shared direction between the coaches.

Fast forward to March, where the Anglo Welsh Cup Final saw a mighty victory for Tigers under the reign of Mauger. Hard-fought and well earned, the 16-12 win against Exeter Chiefs saw the players applause the former All Black for his inspiration and leadership to win them this silverware. Less than 24 hours later, however, the Head Coach was left devastated by the news that his services would no longer be required. The players were in uproar and the fans in shock – he still had a year on his contract and had been making great changes in Leicester’s play.

Matt O’Connor has now replaced Mauger and he will look to improve on his debut defeat against Bath on Saturday. Only time will tell if this was the right decision, but it seems the board members certainly had their hearts set on O’Connor long before Mauger had ample chance to prove his worth.

The French Revolution

Whilst his old club lingers in wait for the influence of yet another man in charge, Cockerill has firmly sharpened up his CV. Not only has he confirmed his role as Edinburgh Head Coach from next season, but the 46 year old has just been promoted to lead Top 14 club Toulon until the end of this one. Their previous Head Coach, Mike Ford (see main picture), left last weekend after the French side’s abysmal 29-9 defeat to Clermont Auvergne in the Champions Cup quarter-final. He was only ever keeping the seat warm for Fabien Galthie who will take over for the 2017-18 season.

This swift shift of leaders will not ignite a spark in their star-players though – Ma’a Nonu, Bryan Habana and Leigh Halfpenny to name a few – who have been lacking in form. The three-time European Champions have got to stay in the top six of their league to qualify for the Champions Cup next year. Cockerill will have his eye set on this goal, but with a man like Mourad Boudjellal in charge, who knows what will happen at this club. One thing is for sure; neither coaches or players can do afford to lose any more games this season.

Time for Change

Laurie Fisher first donned his Gloucester Rugby Head Coach hat in 2014 and has seen highs and lows with the Cherry and Whites. During his first season at the club the Sevens team were Premiership Rugby Sevens Champions and under Fisher they have won the Challenge Cup.

Over the past few years they have surfaced mid-table and have failed to finish in the play off places. However there was always a mutual respect between the Aussie and his players, and with the prospects coming in over the summer, there was hope that a strong finish this season would develop into a strong start next.

Then on 4th March, this appeared on Fisher’s Twitter following a 30-27 loss to Harlequins – the nod to confirm that he was on his way out.

Whether it was decided between the club board and himself, or whether his mind was already made up, his departure signified the end of an era for the West Country team. Johan Ackerman arrives after his Super Rugby campaign finishes, with DOR David Humphreys in charge until then.

Boardroom Decisions a ‘Shallow Thanks’ For Robinson

Bristol Rugby repaid Andy Robinson’s grand efforts to get them back into the Premiership by sacking him less than six months after promotion. Following a seven year absence from the league, Bristol have dragged along the bottom of the table all season long. However in November, the board decided that Robinson was not able to turn the fortunes of the club around. According to chairman Chris Booy

“The Board lost confidence that Andy would retain the club’s Premiership position, bearing in mind the results to date.”

Nevertheless, the club’s form has not improved much since. Needless to say, their three wins from 18 games cannot have been helped by the loss of Robinson, who guided them to Championship victory and promotion into England’s highest league. A shallow thanks indeed.

So what do all of these departures have in common? Results, of course.

It is entirely a results based industry, and whilst not everyone can win all the time, the pressure to perform is ever increasing. Good results bring in revenue, sponsorships and it brings a paying audience back each and every week. When a team loses, pressure is increased to be better. But the instant need for results to suddenly get better just cannot be comprehended by a sport heavily influenced by injuries or by a group of individuals who all make independent choices across 80 minutes.

A team is led by a character who has the trust of supporters and players, but most importantly the people that put them there – the CEO’s and the chairman. It’s this trust that has a much shorter expiry date than ever before. Lines are becoming blurred between the stable tradition of rugby and the fickleness of football, which is constantly being ridiculed for the high turnover of managers throughout it’s major leagues.

Perhaps rugby ought to go back to basics and a little bit of faith should be reintroduced?

“Main Photo Credit”