Premiership looks to the future of coaching as clubs put faith in rising talent
Borthwick and Hatley, who cut their teeth in the England set-up, faced off as Bath brushed aside Leicester 38-16 on Saturday
Neal Hatley has described Eddie Jones’s method of developing and educating coaches as a “catch and release system”. The idea is that lieutenants under Jones spend a few years looking after units in the England set-up before taking up more senior Premiership club roles.
Paul Gustard was the first to spread his wings, joining Harlequins as head of rugby after the 2018 tour of South Africa. Hatley and then Steve Borthwick followed similar paths, on the back of the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Six Nations, respectively.
Jones watched from the Welford Road stands as his latter pair of proteges pitted their wits against one another on Saturday afternoon. It proved to be more a case of “catch and kill”, with the power of Hatley’s Bath pounding Borthwick’s Leicester Tigers 38-16.
Bath and Leicester are far from alone in placing their faith in young, English coaches. Wasps backed Lee Blackett to succeed Dai Young; Gloucester brought in George Skivington from London Irish after Johan Ackermann left, with Dom Waldouck, at only 32, arriving as defence coach. Waldouck is close to star player Danny Cipriani and counts John Fletcher, the former England Under-18 supremo and one of the country’s most passionate coach developers, as a mentor.
Northampton’s Chris Boyd is eager for his backroom team to expand their horizons. Sam Vesty went on the 2017 tour of Argentina with England before moving to Saints. Scrum coach Matt Ferguson came from England Women, while forwards guru Phil Dowson was seconded to the men’s team for last summer’s Barbarians fixture.
Support networks are crucial for these rookie coaches, and new journeys are beginning all the time. At a conservative estimate, there are some 50 first-team players from across the Premiership who coach local community clubs.
Bath alone have seven such players (Ross Batty, Tom Dunn, Tom Ellis, Josh Matavesi, Zach Mercer, Elliott Stooke and George Worboys) while Bristol Bears have five (Callum Sheedy, Harry Randall, Jake Armstrong, Sam Bedlow and Yann Thomas).
Chunks of the squads at Harlequins, Wasps and Sale also moonlight on touchlines and training evenings as well. Occasionally, Premiership team-mates will come up against one another in league fixtures – a thrill for them and the grass-roots contestants.
While Kyle Sinckler was at Harlequins, he helped out at Guildford with former hooker Dave Ward. That duo would tussle with teammate Nick Easter when their charges took on Wimbledon in the sixth tier of English rugby.
Hatley, a former prop, would have enjoyed the fact that four of Bath’s six tries came from frontrowers on Saturday. But his experience shone through when asked to outline which areas of the team performance had pleased him. After three years under Jones, Hatley’s standards are high.
“I thought Cameron Redpath was really good, Sam Underhill as well,” he told BBC Bristol. “We got a little bit of impact off our bench and when Tigers kicked poorly, we looked to be positive.
“But, to be perfectly honest, the breakdown was really poor. We couldn’t get into a flow and then for that 20, 25 minutes before the end of the game, we couldn’t get out of our own 22.”
Borthwick’s resources are not as strong as Hatley’s; the turnover at Tigers was already going to be significant before the summer pay dispute that caused five first-team players to leave. Patch-up recruitment was completed quickly, but many signings remain unavailable due to different factors.
It is important to stress that Borthwick, a technical stickler and superb strategist, is learning, too. Having final say over selection is an unfamiliar responsibility. Clearly prioritising Wednesday’s game against London Irish, Leicester rested Ellis Genge, Ben Youngs and George Ford at the weekend. Their starting side featured 13 changes from the one who lost defiantly against Exeter in round 14.
The run-on XV boasted a meagre aggregate of 262 Premiership appearances. Luke Wallace, vicecaptain in just his second outing for the club since arriving from Harlequins, accounted for 113 of those.
“It was a bit strange to be that much more experienced than the others,” Wallace said, who scored one of two tries that flattered Leicester as Bath’s performance grew scruffy.
Borthwick is far too canny to be fooled by the late flourish. Looking on the bright side, he can spend the remainder of this campaign introducing and assessing promising youngsters, such as 19-year-olds George Martin, impressive in the back row on Premiership debut against Bath, and full-back Freddie Steward.
At 40, a decade younger than Hatley, Borthwick has time to return to the England fold. Jones has tipped him as a future candidate for the top job.
“Catch and release” could add a “rebound” section before. First, the Tigers must rebuild.