JIM MALLINDER – Scottish Rugby’s recently installed Director of Performance Rugby – has dismissed Glasgow Warriors head coach Dave Rennie’s suggestion that Leinster deserve to be handed the Guinness PRO14 title on the basis of their emphatic lead in Conference A of the competition at the time the Covid-19 pandemic brought the season to a shuddering halt.
Rennie indicated on Tuesday that the uncertainty over what will happen with the remainder of the 2019-20 season, and the suggestion that it could be stitched on to the start of the 2020-21 campaign, could have a negative impact on the integrity of the league and on player welfare. The Kiwi coach is set to leave Glasgow in June to take over the reins with Australia, and it appears he is keen to have as many loose-ends as possible tied up before that happens.
However, with Edinburgh sitting at the summit of Conference B when the lockdown came into force, it would not be in the best interests of Scottish rugby to simply give up on the chance of winning the title (no matter how remote the chances of the Scottish side toppling the Irishmen appear to be).
“That was clearly a personal comment from Dave,” said Mallinder, who was speaking to the press for the first time since taking on the job in January. “From an SRU point of view we wouldn’t agree with that, I’d guess that PRO14 would probably have something to say, and I’d guess [Edinburgh head coach] Richard Cockerill would have something to say about it as well,”
“I don’t think we’ve played enough matches to give the title to Leinster. Clearly, they’ve had an outstanding start, and it’s been brilliant for them to go unbeaten, but there are some other sides who are playing well.
“What we’ve said at the moment is that there’s the season, then the play-offs, then the final, and that it’s the winner of that who should get it. That’s why I don’t agree that Leinster should be given it.”
The long road back
The PRO14’s tournament organisers have been tight-lipped so far on their plans to get back into game, but have stressed from the very start that certain key public safety and player welfare criteria must be satisfied before that happens. In light of the recent news that all mass gathering of over 5,000 people have been banned in the Republic of Ireland until the end of August, the likelihood of an earlier resumption in the competition seems increasingly unlikely, but Mallinder insisted that all possibilities are being actively investigated.
“It is a difficult one and we know that in terms of the PRO14, next week they’ve got a review in terms of their scenario planning, with lots of scenarios to put in place,” he explained. “They are taking advice from all the unions, and the medical side, so we’re still very open-minded PRO14 wise about restarting or restructuring, whatever that might be – but at the moment no decision has been taken as yet.
“We know there is probably not going to be any rugby at least before June, and we know at the right time there will be a phased return to rugby in terms of individual training. We are already now looking at individuals then coming into training-facilities to build that up to smaller groups and getting full contact. We’re looking at this from small groups all the way through to playing a game, initially behind closed doors, and then, ultimately – which we know will be quite a time away – coming back to playing, hopefully, in front of full stadiums.”
Mallinder added that all relevant stakeholders would be fully consulted before any big decisions are made on this, including RPS [Rugby Players Scotland], the association which represents Scotland’s 157 centrally contracted players.
“Without a doubt, player welfare is massive” he stressed. “It’s really very, very important. I’ve been in touch with Bill Mitchell in terms of Rugby Players Scotland and we’ve been in constant dialogue. We have to make sure that whatever we have in terms of season structure is right for the businesses and the players, but it’s a very difficult one.”
Key coaching appointments
Mallinder’s job is to oversee all aspects of the professional/performance game in Scotland. That is not easy at the moment for obvious reasons, but he does have a few matters to keep himself occupied, including helping Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend nail down his coaching staff for the eventual resumption of matches. Defence coach Steve Tandy was a permanent appointment before the Six Nations, while Pieter de Villiers took on the set-piece on a consultancy basis for the duration of the championship.
“Definitely, both those areas [defence and set-piece] were real strengths of the team,” said Mallinder. “I was delighted with both coaches – I knew Steve a little bit, not really come across Pieter before, but was very impressed with him and his coaching ability. I think we saw the success of that translate on to the field. There were some really good areas and those are two coaches we really need to keep hold of. We’ll be looking to do that. Steve is already under a longer-term contract and Pieter, we should hopefully have some good news coming out about that soon.”
The forwards coach role is also vacant after Danny Wilson’s re-assignation to Glasgow to take over from Rennie. “Gregor and I are in conversation about it at the moment,” said Mallinder. “Clearly, there’s no real immediate concern on that but we’ve certainly got a few coaches we’re in dialogue with. We’ll be looking to bring in a new forwards coach in the near future.
“Ideally, we’d want that done before they next play. It looks as if the summer tour is not going to go ahead now, and we don’t quite know the structure of the autumn internationals yet, but hopefully we will be playing some rugby there. It would be great to have the coaching team complete by then.”
Mallinder also explained that he did not play an active role in the Finn Russell saga which dominated the headlines during the Six Nations, but spoke positively about the prospect of the stand-off returning to the Scottish fold at the earliest opportunity post-lockdown.
“My main dealings are with Gregor as opposed to the players and I have been in constant chats with him. He clearly sets the vision and the way forward he wants that national team to go, and he will ultimately pick his side. But I am certainly in discussion with him and what we want is all our best players playing for Scotland – we want to have that strength in depth – and certainly, Finn Russell is an outstanding player we want to have involved playing for Scotland again.”