AFTER arriving at Murrayfield in January as the SRU’s new Director of Performance Rugby, Jim Mallinder generally kept his head down during his first few months in the new job – but when Covid-19 came along to obliterate the end of the 2019-20 season and blow a huge hole in the finances of every professional rugby organisation on the planet, the 54-year-old suddenly had to transform from observer to key figure in the delicate negotiations required to agree the necessary wage cuts for all players earning over £50,000 per year.
It is believed that his open and reasoned approach was key to smoothing the way in that potentially problematic process.
Mallinder appears to be a very different character to his predecessor in the role, the brash yet elusive Scott Johnson, which is reassuring at a time of unprecedented internal and external upheaval for Scottish Rugby. As Murrayfield looks to negotiate its way through a potentially catastrophic financial squeeze, and then adapt to whatever the new reality looks like after this pandemic is over, they will need a figure fronting up the rugby arm of the business who can foster trust and confidence.
The proof, as always, will be in the pudding, but the early signs with Mallinder are encouraging. He conducted his first media briefing since arriving in Scotland by conference call on Wednesday and gave a fairly convincing impression of a man who wants to both understand and engage.
When asked about his role in the Finn Russell saga, he explained that he had left Gregor Townsend and the player to sort out their differences.
“I came in in January and had a couple of months really hoping to take my time to assess all aspects of the set-up – I’m trying to get my head around a lot of different topics and areas – but I’d like to think that I’ve been a help to Gregor,” said the former Sale Sharks, Northampton Saints and England Saxons head coach.
“He has a number of people he uses as sounding boards and I’m just there to help. I can talk to him about strategy, team tactics, coaches, coaching philosophy and also about players and how players are playing.
“[So] my main dealings are with Gregor as opposed to the players. He clearly sets the vision and the way forward he wants that national team to go, and he will ultimately pick his side. What we both want is all of our best players playing for Scotland, and 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.”
With the benefit of hindsight, both Russell and Townsend will hopefully be able to concede one day that neither side handled the situation well – but the outcome has not been disastrous. Both parties have now made encouraging noises about a closer understanding of each other, and Adam Hastings has had valuable time in the saddle as part of Scotland team which made an encouraging start to the process of resurrection after the bitter disappointment of last year’s World Cup flop.
Making the most of a bad situation
It transpired that the spat between coach and player was a mere storm in a teacup, because before the Six Nations was over an even bigger problem had thundered over the horizon in the shape of a world-wide pandemic.
With the immediate challenge of cutting wages and furloughing players successfully negotiated, Mallinder now finds himself in a state of limbo, unable to plan too far ahead but determined to grasp this negative situation and engineer it into a positive outcome.
The appointment of former Fiji 7s coach Ben Ryan last year to conduct a review of the SRU’s performance department must be viewed as an admission of sorts that there was not previously an over-arching strategy in this area. The mixed messages of developing Super6 at the same time as investing in satellite teams in the south of France and the east coast of the USA supports that impression. So, one of the big wins Mallinder could make in earning trust is to demonstrate that there is now a plan in place based on rugby rather than business aspirations.
“I’ve read Ben’s report and it was very good,” says Mallinder. “I’ve recently followed up on that – we had a meeting with him literally just before the virus struck. I was asking him a bit more about his opinions. There are some really good points in there and a lot of those things we’ll be looking to take on board as we move forward.
“We don’t quite know how bad it [Covid-19] is going to be but I think it is going to affect rugby worldwide and by talking to other people around the world it really does look like finances are going to be stretched,” he continues.
“Youngster-wise and development-wise, it might not be a bad thing. So, looking at positives from this: is this an opportunity to be playing more youngsters and giving them more game time? Those are the sorts of questions we are asking ourselves when looking at our squads at the moment.”
“At the top end, we can’t get away from winning, but there’s a development piece underneath that, and that’s where the academies, Super6 and the sevens are very, very important. Because we’ve only got a small cohort of players compared with some of the other nations we compete against, so we really need to be onto it and develop our players as well as we possibly can.”
A key component of this is going to be a closer relationship between the academies and the pro teams.
“I watched with fascination the Under-20s side in the Six Nations, and how competitive we were for such a small nation – we probably should have beaten England and could easily have beaten France, we were probably the better team on both occasions – so we’ve got a good system but I think I have already seen a few ways we can improve it,” he says.
“I know our players have been going towards working a bit more with the pro clubs and I think that is something that I am going to be encouraging, to get these best 19 and 18 year olds playing at Super6 level as much as we can, and hopefully training with the pro first teams.
“I think there is nothing better than mentoring so I need our senior players from the pro teams – our international players – to be mentoring our 18 and 19 year old, whether that is a scrum-half, a fly-half or a hooker, there are some real good lessons we can learn there.
“The process has come to a bit of a halt with the current situation, however once we get up and moving, we’ll be looking to align Stage 3 academy players very much closer to the professional teams. I think that will be a real benefit to everyone.”
This doesn’t match up with Edinburgh announcing the signing of two Australian inside-backs on Friday, but Mallinder promises that young Scottish talent will also be added to the pro team rosters in the coming weeks, with stars of the Under-20s side such as Nathan Chamberlain and Ewan Ashman [who are currently aligned to English academies] the most obvious targets.
“I am personally aware of all those players. The ideal is to bring them back up to Scotland and to get them playing in the pro teams. I’ll be working as hard as I can on that” he promises. “I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder, but you will be seeing, in the next few weeks, some announcements.”