By Juan Cote
The fiasco that has become John Mitchell’s tenure as Western Force coach is just another in a long line of poor treatment of coaches by their respective provinces.
Although we will have to wait for the protagonists respective books to be written to get an idea of the real story, it appears from the outside that once again a coach is being hung out to dry.
With the writing well and truly on the wall for Mitch, I got to thinking about doing some head-hunting for possible replacements; assuming the ‘Ditch Mitch’ campaign succeeds and John Mulvihill is appointed caretaker coach for the remainder of the 2009 season.
I have narrowed the field down to 5 possible candidates, 3 current coaches and two former coaches, all Australian and all vastly experienced. Vote for your favourite candidate at the bottom.
Candidate 1 – Pat Howard
The former head of the ARU High Performance Unit, Howard has an impressive, albeit short, coaching record. His stint with Leicester ended with the Tigers taking both the Guinness Premiership and the EDF Energy Cup. Not only were these two titles secured but Howard also got the Tigers to the final of the Heineken Cup where they were rolled by Wasps.
Howard was courted heavily for the Irish coaching position, reportedly turning down the opportunity after being offered it and was also recently linked to Martin Johnson’s new English set-up.
Although Howard resigned his ARU job to concentrate on his business interests, it seems as though coaching may still be on the radar for the superbly pedigreed former Wallaby.
Howard would bring credibility to the Force, something which will be lacking after this little bust up as well as knowledge of what it takes to win. He would be a real drawcard for players and sponsors alike.
Candidate 2 – Steve Meehan
Meehan took over at Bath in 2006 and has taken the team from basket case to premiership high-flyers, Meehan has rebuilt the Bath squad and attracted several big names, Butch James for one. This is a massive positive as more than likely he will have a re-building task ahead of him once Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell and probably Nathan Sharpe leg it for greener pastures.
Meehan had several successful coaching appointments in Queensland and left for France due to a lack of coaching opportunities, coincidentally not long after Mark McBain had been appointed as John Connolly’s replacement at the Reds.
In 2002 Meehan joined Nick Mallet as a backs and skills coach at Stade Francais and continued on under Fabien Galthie during Stades’ golden run in the French Championship which included 3 consecutive finals appearances, winning two and losing the other in extra time.
Meehan has transformed Bath from forward orientated stodge to an exciting attacking unit which would also fit well with the Force’s rugby philosophy. Sadly, Meehan is under contract with Bath until the end of 2010, but hey – what does a contract really mean these days anyway?
Candidate 3 – Michael Cheika
Widely touted for the Waratahs job after Ewen McKenzie was knifed, Cheika is the current coach of Irish side Leinster which he joined in 2005. Along with fellow Randwick club refugee, David Knox, Cheika set about re-building the Leinster squad and the success of this can be gauged by a recent contract extension.
Cheika came to Leinster with little or no full-time professional coaching but was able to impose his style and get the best out of a bunch of seasoned professionals. He was Leinster’s fifth coach in six years so it is clear he can bring stability to unsettled situations and this experience would be invaluable given the Force’s current woes.
Cheika has been able to develop young players to achieve international caps while in charge of Leinster – most notably fullback Rob Kearney – and this sort of record would help attract new, young talent to the province.
Interestingly he is viewed by some as his own man who is not interested in front office politics however he clearly must have a decent set of antennae to make it in the cut-throat world of European rugby. It is somewhat ironic that Cheika was considered one of the front-runners to be appointed as the Force’s inaugural coach.
As with Steve Meehan, there could be some contractual issues with his signing given the extension he was given, but as he is from Randwick he can pretty much do as he likes, right?
Candidate 4 – Michael Foley
Considered superfluous to requirements by Robbie Deans as an assistant, Foley has signed a very convenient one year contract as an assistant at the Waratahs. The John Connolly protégé, Foley is the consummate rugby politician who would have little difficulty in manoeuvring around the various agendas currently operating at the Force.
While Foley’s coaching record may not be as successful as the previously mentioned candidates, he has been widely credited with improving the Wallaby forward pack and being a man with tactical nous and the ability to develop young talent.
Foley was thrust into a head coaching role just months after joining Bath in late 2001 and, not having had any previous coaching experience, called on Connolly to help. After Connolly’s return to Australia, Foley eventually handed over the reins to Brian Ashton and went back to his role as assistant.
Considering he only has a little over 7 years coaching experience, Foley has managed to compile an impressive resume. He was cast into a sink or swim situation at Bath and managed to leave on his own terms which speaks volumes for his ability to deal with adversity and his courage.
As mentioned, Foley is a ‘political animal’ who gives as good as he gets – just ask Mark McBain where Foley was a lead protagonist in ending McBain’s coaching career – so this sort of strong will may be needed to gain control of the Force’s dysfunctional culture.
Candidate 5 – John Mulvihill
The current assistant coach at the Force and by recent reports has been running the show since John Mitchell’s exile. Mulvihill will no doubt be the caretaker for the rest of this year.
The positives for Mulvihill would be that he could bring a modicum of stability to Force and he knows the players and systems which would facilitate an easier transition to new ways in the post-Mitch era.
Interestingly Mulvihill applied for the Waratahs job last year and his application was supported by Western Force management, does that mean he is no good and they were keen to get rid of him or is he part of the reason for the current malaise out west?