Mallett to plot Boks' demise?

2011-12-01 13:14
Nick Mallett (AFP)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town - The planets are suddenly aligning themselves pretty smoothly for Nick Mallett to call the coaching shots for England next year.

And if he does agree terms at Twickenham, it would put him on a rapid, tantalising collision course in mid-2012 with the Springboks, the team he has both played for and later coached.

England are first visitors in the partial return to old-fashioned “proper tours” next year, when they will play the Boks in Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth respectively, over three Saturdays from June 9.

These would almost certainly amount to Mallett’s first games in charge if he is installed - the same would apply to the new SA coach, assuming it is not Peter de Villiers again - as he has firmly stated his wish to take a meaningful break after leaving his Italian post after the World Cup in New Zealand.

So the “Mallett factor” would be a powerful extra lure for a series that is never short of needle anyway for historical reasons, even if the northern hemisphere side are presently in relative doldrums (fifth on the IRB rankings ladder).

The opportunity to come up against the country which fired him on fairly petty grounds - his beef over Test ticket prices - some time after he had led them to maiden Tri-Nations success in 1998 and a record-breaking run generally, has probably only been an extra incentive in Mallett’s apparent resurgence of interest in the post after his initial pooh-poohing of it.

Just about all media reports from London this week point ever more firmly to Mallett being drawn into the England mix, especially as the structural reform he has signalled would be a requirement appears to have begun in earnest with RFU elite rugby director Rob Andrew removed from direct involvement with the senior team.

Mallett, very seldom accused of dishonesty in his dealings with the press, also told the Guardian’s respected rugby correspondent Rob Kitson earlier this week: “Everything is possible, I can’t deny it.

“It’s not a disadvantage as a coach to take on a side that the (former) coach and director of rugby have both said is at rock bottom.

“If you take over a team that has just won a World Cup that makes it pretty tough because you’ve got to try and replicate that. But whoever takes over England has got a really big opportunity.

“There are family issues for me at the moment and the timing isn’t ideal but I’m a great believer in fate.”

English rugby bosses have confirmed their preparedness to go into the Six Nations campaign early next year with some sort of caretaker coach or panel, whilst perhaps awaiting Mallett’s infusion in perfect time for the South African safari.

Earlier this month, interestingly, retired Bok captain John Smit, now playing for Saracens, gave a ringing endorsement for Mallett as possible England coach, branding him a “perfect fit”.

Smit told the Evening Standard: “What you get from him is tremendous tenacity and competitiveness. He has a huge drive for the game and it spreads through the people he works with.

“Any coach like Nick who is available would be an option for England if they decide a job is there. And after doing a good job with Italy, he will be looking for a new challenge.”

I have personally respected Mallett since he coached me briefly at cricket (a second sporting skill he shone at) in junior school at St George’s Grammar in Cape Town – though “fear” was also not absent from a group of quivering 13-year-old boys as he smacked balls murderously high into the heavens and would give us a booming earful if we grassed the fast-descending, whistling cherry.

Rather more recently, his charisma and intelligence have always shone through in any one-on-one interviews I have conducted with him: it is refreshing to encounter a sports personality with a worldly acumen and perspective, far beyond the parameters of a daft ball game.

I often wonder whether his commendable openness can be a minor enemy of sorts: I sat with him once in an extended vehicle journey to a coaching clinic, while he was Bok coach, and he yakked away loudly on his cellphone to bosses and players, exchanging what sometimes seemed surprisingly “sensitive” information and seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was in the company of a gently eavesdropping journalist.

Mind you, I never felt in the slightest way inclined to betray any reciprocal trust he might have expected, either consciously or subconsciously.

Smit is right: Nicholas Vivian Howard Mallett, 55, might well be England’s perfect fit for a resuscitation job.

He’s just a damned fine rugby man.

And a looming danger, dare I say, to South Africa?

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