Coaches tend to have a thick skin; goodness knows, they need them. If they are not born with one, they grow one. Certainly the vast majority of them are well-equipped to handle the sweeping vagaries of a results-based career path. They choose it, because they love their sport. They live it, they breathe it, they need it. None that I know seek sympathy and violins. For all this, their existence is a precarious one, especially for those at the top of the tree: the directors of rugby.
Last year Mike Ford was dispatched by Bath, a year after leading them to the Aviva Premiership final. This season has seen Andy Robinson sacked at Bristol after just seven league matches. Richard Cockerill was given his marching orders after the best part of 20 years at Leicester. David Humphreys has found his position at Gloucester called into question, with the proposed — and as yet, unsanctioned — takeover of the club by the Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad. In the Championship, Bryan Redpath has decided to call time at Yorkshire Carnegie, with the offer of a more secure future in the financial world.
All of these individuals have rugby running through their veins, and they love their involvement in it. They are paid well for the job that they do, and many would argue this is more than adequate compensation for their lack of employment security. But in monetary terms, rugby is not football. These men do not have so many noughts on the end of their salary that if they are sacked, there is no need to work again.
This scenario is beginning to spawn a new type of coach. The ‘firefighter’, the ‘consultant’, call them what you will. Cockerill is currently performing this role on the Cote D’Azur with Toulon; a gun for hire, but not for long. The former Tigers boss will see out the domestic French campaign with the three-time European champions, before turning his attentions to Edinburgh in a more permanent capacity.
Richard Cockerill will move to Edinburgh after his consultancy stint in Toulon Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images
Last month the hugely experienced Gary Gold landed at Worcester, drafted in to save their faltering Premiership campaign. His role is to take the heat off the head coach at Sixways, Carl Hogg. He is addressing some of the time-consuming administration, and offering a cool head amongst the mayhem of top-flight survival.
Arriving at something of a low point, following the 50-point hammering by Gloucester, the initial signs are positive. Gold has overseen a first away win of the season, over Cardiff Blues in the Anglo-Welsh Cup. That was followed by a remarkable victory over the Premiership and European champions, Saracens, at Sixways. The return to fitness of the Warriors’ most influential player, Francois Hougaard, has unquestionably assisted the Gold touch, but the clarity of message belongs to the coach.
The South African undertook a similar role at Newcastle five years ago. The Falcons were relegated regardless on that occasion, but Gold oversaw four wins in their last eight games of the season. The dead cat bounced, even if it did not quite perform the full somersault to resurrection.
Bristol have quickly adopted a similar policy. Another wise owl from South Africa, Alan Solomons, is their would-be knight in shining armour; or at the very least, hard hat. Robinson’s Premiership tenure was a short one, and club legend Mark Tainton was handed the keys in an interim capacity, with Pat Lam due to arrive in the summer. After a confident spell over Christmas and New Year in which they closed the gap on Worcester at the bottom of the Premiership table to just a single point, Bristol stumbled badly in recent weeks.
There was no time for Solomons to mess about, with the niceties of a gentle introduction. His arrival has changed the picture already. The 66-year-old appeared last week with seven games to save the Bristol bacon, and a dramatic one point win over Bath at Ashton Gate means they now have every chance.
Solomons brings an extensive international and club coaching CV, and a reputation and track record which suggests that he is not averse to ruffling feathers. By all accounts he has hit the ground running, with a simple insistence to recover the snarl that has been singularly lacking from Bristol in the last few weeks. If the players needed a rocket up the backside, they have surely received one. Premiership survival is now back on the cards.
Brendan Venter is a defence consultant with the Italy team Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Some coaches have been operating as ‘consultants’ for some time. The most obvious example is Brendan Venter, back in the headlines for masterminding Italy’s “ruckless rugby” at Twickenham on Sunday. An innovative thinker, Venter was the architect of the revolution at Saracens from flighty also-rans to uncompromising champions. He returned home to Cape Town at the end of 2010, but was retained as ‘technical director’, after handing over the top job to Mark McCall. Whilst simultaneously assisting Italy, this is also the role that Venter has occupied since last summer at his former club, London Irish. The Exiles are currently leading the Championship, with a likely return to the Aviva Premiership in May. Those closely involved speak highly of Venter’s organisation, work ethic and immense experience.
There is every chance that this is the new frontier for coaches looking for a degree of self-determination in an increasingly fickle environment. Those that back their ability to make an instant impact can find lucrative work on a short-term basis, that need not mean total domestic and personal upheaval. Under most circumstances a reputation is enhanced. If results continue on a downward curve, then they can reasonably ask if enough time was afforded them.
Experienced club coach? Fed up of being at the mercy of a handful of poor results, and twitchy decision-makers? Tired of constantly uprooting your family to all parts of the globe for a period of immense instability? Join the firefighters. Drop in, spread the soothing balm of your wisdom on those around you, and leave intact, once the wound has begun to heal.
Alastair Eykyn commentates on the Aviva Premiership and European Champions Cup for BT Sport.
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The rise of the firefighting rugby consultants
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