Top 6 Coaches in Rugby History

Danny Coyle@dannyjpcoyleFeatured ColumnistOctober 10, 2013

Top 6 Coaches in Rugby History

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    The best sides in rugby's history have had a variety of qualities that made them great, but what they each stood for was the philosophy imprinted on them by their coach.

    In this list of great coaches, I have made six selections based on achievements in the game and the X-factor.

    It could be that they were great innovators in their time, or simply that they pulled a team together to conquer seemingly insurmountable odds.

    Between them, you'd need a warehouse to stick all their trophies in.

    Here are my top six.

6. Sir Clive Woodward

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    Sir Clive Woodward arrived to the England job following spells at London Irish and Bath that hadn't been entirely successful. But England were underachieving when he was appointed in 1997, and Woodward knew it.

    By introducing his ‘marginal gains’ philosophy, the former Leicester centre set about improving every aspect of the set up, from players’ fitness to nutrition, training methods and facilities by 1 per cent. The overall upturn, claimed Woodward, would be monumental.

    There were early signs that Woodward was making a difference. England frightened the life out of the All Blacks at Twickenham in 1998 but there were bumps in the road.

    England failed to seal grand slams that had been in their grasp in 1999, 2000 and 2001, and the 1999 World Cup ended with quarter final defeat to South Africa.

    But in 2003, Woodward’s men reached the summit. The Grand Slam was emphatically sealed in a thumping win at Lansdowne Road. New Zealand were beaten 15-13 in Wellington, famously holding out with a seven-man scrum late in the game.

    A week later they went to Sydney and annihilated Australia with a thrilling display, and they were back in November that year to conquer the Wallabies again in the World Cup final.

    Woodward’s stewardship of the Lions didn’t go well in 2005, with the All Blacks handing out a comprehensive 3-0 beating, but his knack for turning organisations into winning outfits returned with his role as elite performance director of the British Olympic Association in 2006.

    Team GB finished fourth in the medial table in the 2008 Beijing Games before coming third in London four years later.

5. Rod Macqueen

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    Rod Macqueen is credited by many as the man who dragged rugby coaching into the professional era.

    He began his coaching career with New South Wales in 1991, the same year another great Australian coach, Bob Dwyer, was taking the Wallabies to World Cup glory in England.

    When he joined the Brumbies Super Rugby franchise in 1996 he began to earn his reputation as a forward-thinking coach, bringing video and computer analysis of opponents into his armory, and he also revolutionized the lineout by introducing the ‘two-pod’ system still used widely today.

    By 1997 Macqueen was in the Wallabies hot seat, where he ushered in a golden era like no other, bringing home four Bledisloe Cups, the 1999 World Cup, the 2001 Tri-Nations and, in the same year, conquering the Lions from 1-0 down in the series.

    He retired following that triumph with an impressive 81 per cent win ratio, the IRB title of Coach of the Year, and a legacy that has endured in several facets of modern coaching methods and tactics.

    He came back in 2010 to head up the Melbourne Rebels in their first season in Super Rugby before handing the reins over to his right hand man Damien Hill a year later.

4. Kitch Christie

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    Kitch Christie was given the ultimate job in South African rugby, but at unquestionably the toughest time to get it.

    After impressing in his tenure at Transvaal, he took charge of the Springboks a year head of the World Cup to be hosted in his homeland.

    It was to be the Boks’ and the nation’s first major stage since the end of apartheid to show the world a new face, but the side was far from ready to put up a serious challenge to the all-conquering New Zealand.

    In just nine months, Christie changed all that. He was a motivator of men and knew how to pull a disparate group of players together and forge them into a team whose will to win was greater than the sum of their individual talents.

    Christie piloted his side through a group containing the reigning world champions, Australia, before knocking out Western Samoa and France to set up a final with Jonah Lomu and Co.

    Against a side and a player in Lomu who had steamrollered all before them, Christie’s tactics worked brilliantly to stifle Lomu’s threat and throttle New Zealand’s attacking flair.

    Joel Stransky’s drop goal in extra time sealed the Webb Ellis Cup for South Africa, and Christie’s side went on to set a new world-record 14 consecutive wins.

    He stepped down in 1996 with ill health and his condition thwarted further returns to coaching roles. Christie died in April 1998, and was posthumously inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame in 2011.

3. Warren Gatland

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    After a record-breaking number of appearances for Waikato, Warren Gatland relocated to Ireland to begin his coaching career.

    There, he quickly appeared on the national radar by guiding lowly Connacht to the latter stages of the European Challenge Cup with two wins over Northampton in the process.

    He was swiftly appointed to the Irish head coach job where he oversaw the emergence of a golden generation of talent. A win in Paris during the 1999 Six Nations was his high point, but he was replaced after a low key World Cup showing that year.

    Gatland moved to Wasps next, where he smashed the dominance of the old guard at home and in Europe, winning three straight Premiership titles between 2003 and 2005 and the Heineken Cup in 2004.

    When Wales came calling after a disastrous 2007 World Cup, Gatland jumped at the chance to resurrect their glory days. In his first Six Nations in 2008, the Grand Slam was sealed, with a clean sweep that included the first win over England at Twickenham for 20 years. Gatland and his right hand man Sean Edwards were drafted into Ian McGeechan’s Lions coaching setup the following year.

    In 2011 Wales faired badly in the Six Nations, so Gatland revamped his side ahead of the World Cup that year and took them to the semi-finals, where but for a controversial red card for his new young skipper Sam Warburton, they could’ve reached their first final.

    A second grand slam under Gatland followed in 2012 and Gatland landed the Lions top job as a result. A 2-1 series win over the Wallabies in 2013 was the result, with Gatland emphatically vindicated in his decision to axe the great Brian O’Driscoll for the final decisive test, which the Lions won 41-16.

    Already tipped to take the Lions back to his homeland in 2017, Gatland first has the job of getting Wales the extra mile at the 2015 World Cup.

2. Sir Graham Henry

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    The Great Redeemer of Wales, Sir Graham Henry, first made his name in Auckland from the moment he took over the provincial side.

    After his arrival in 1992, he immediately coached them to the NPC title, adding the next three to his trophy cabinet before taking charge of the Auckland Blues Super Rugby franchise.

    His side claimed the first two Super titles and finished runners-up in the third. To everyone but the New Zealand Rugby Union, Henry was the hot favourite for the All Blacks job, but he was passed over and came north to Wales.

    An eleven-game unbeaten run elevated him to icon status in the Welsh rugby public’s eyes but the 1999 World Cup was a disappointment as they crashed out at the group stage.

    Henry was appointed as the first overseas coach of a Lions Tour in 2001, but a fractured squad suffering the effects of some tough training sessions ran out of gas after a mesmerizing first Test display. They went down 2-1.

    Henry eventually got the job he craved in 2004, and his All Blacks crushed the Lions 3-0 the following year.

    In 2007 he was retained in the role despite a quarter final World Cup exit. He ended a 24-year wait for the Webb Ellis Cup to return to New Zealand with a nerve-jangling 8-7 defeat of France in the final.

    After stepping down post-World Cup, Henry took up an advisory role for Argentina as they entered the newly formed Rugby Championship.

1. Sir Ian McGeechan

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    The former school teacher, Sir Ian McGeechan, already had a stellar playing CV behind him before embarking on a coaching career, after injury ended his playing days at just 33. After assisting with Scotland during the 1987 World Cup, he took full charge the following year, and also coached the 1989 Lions to a 2-1 test series win over Australia.

    A Grand Slam for Scotland followed in 1990 and they reached the World Cup semi-finals a year later.

    After taking the reins at Northampton, McGeechan also returned to Lions duty on the 1993 tour of New Zealand, where they lost the series 2-1.

    After further roles with Scotland he arrived at London Wasps replacing Warren Gatland, winning the Anglo Welsh Cup in 2006, the Heineken Cup in 2007 and the Premiership ­– against Leicester in the final – in 2008.

    But it’s McGeechan’s record as coach of three British and Irish Lions tours that establish him on this list as one of the game’s greatest thinkers.

    After the 1993 tour to New Zealand, he was back four years later, leading a buccaneering team to a 2-1 win over the world champion Springboks. A year earlier, he had travelled with the New Zealand party to watch them win a series in South Africa for the first time in their history.

    He noticed at the end of their victory at the fortress of Ellis Park that the All Blacks were so spent they barely had the energy to raise a smile.

    That, McGeechan told his Lions, was what they had to give if they were going to win. Not only did he engender that sort of commitment, McGeechan’s analysis of the opposition allowed him to make selections that raised eyebrows but proved masterstrokes.

    Neil Jenkins, the welsh goal-kicking metronome was shifted from fly half to full back to retain his point scoring ability and ensure room in the team for the more dynamic Gregor Townsend.

    Rugby League men John Bentley, Alan Tait and Scott Gibbs were used for their hard edge and professional attitude, still something in its infancy in 1997 in the 15-man game.

    Small, mobile props Tom Smith and Paul Wallace were picked to get low and underneath the hulking Springbok monsters. In Martin Johnson, McGeechan identified before anyone else that here was a man who led by example, not words, and could stand eye to eye at the coin toss with the South African skipper Gary Teichmann. It all came gloriously together.

    He was on the staff taken by Sir Clive Woodward to the 2005 tour to New Zealand, and after the battering Woodward’s men took, the Lions turned to McGeechan once again to rekindle the Lions spirit in 2009.

    He produced another slick, entertaining Lions side that came heartbreakingly close to pulling off a series win, eventually losing 2-1 in a series they should have pocketed.