Mallinder’s Northampton downfall has parallels with Wenger at Arsenal

Longevity has come up short. The announcement that Arsène Wenger would leave Arsenal meant this season was the last for the longest-serving club heads in football and rugby’s premierships.
Similar to Wenger at Arsenal, Jim Mallinder at Northampton had gone from managing the champions to missing out on a place in the top four for two successive seasons, and the highly likely prospect of a third forced the Saints to sack him in December, 10 years after he was appointed their director of rugby.
If Arsenal’s decline under Wenger was gradual at first before gathering momentum, Northampton were Premiership champions in 2014 having reached their first final the year before. After wobbling for one season, they lost their balance and their struggles in the Premiership were compounded by heavy defeats in Europe: they have conceded 438 points in the Champions Cup in their last 12 group matches, an average of more than 36.

Success in football is often fashioned by finance, the richest rising to the top, although Leicester City were an exception two years ago. Wenger’s misfortune was that the £450m investment by the Arsenal absentee owner, Stan Kroenke, went into the bank accounts of shareholders, not the club’s, but the salary cap in the Premiership provides a more level field, even if it allows for a couple of marquee signings.
Northampton, like Arsenal, are trying to run a model business, investing in the playing side what they earn rather than relying on a backer. The same applies to Harlequins, who recently announced that John Kingston would stand down as Director of Rugby at the end of the campaign, ending a 17-year association with the club, most of which was spent as a coach. Another era is coming to an end.
There have been concerns that rugby union is resembling football, hiring one year and firing the next, but the top four clubs in the Premiership – Exeter, Saracens, Wasps and Newcastle – are models of stability having appointed their head coaches/directors of rugby in 2009, 2011, 2011 and 2012 respectively. Beneath them, only Sale in seventh match that, with Steve Diamond taking over in 2012.
Successful coaches and managers rarely get sacked, unless they work for Chelsea, but what defines success? Would Sale finishing sixth be as notable an achievement as Saracens regaining the title? Wenger was ridiculed for turning Arsenal from a side that competed for, and won, the title to a side content to finish in the top four, which they did for his first 20 years in charge.
By the standards of history, he was mightily successful but, judged by what he had previously achieved, he was failing – as was Mallinder at Northampton – and had to be shoved out in a downfall reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s when those she felt owed her loyalty pointed out the blindingly obvious.
Mallinder and Wenger largely relied on the same group of coaches during their reigns and became tactically stale. Alex King was brought in to rejuvenate the Saints’ attack but was cast out when the slump started. Continued success comes down to the art of regeneration, something Sir Alex Ferguson was a master of. While he remained in control at Manchester United, he regularly changed his second-in-command, bringing in a new voice as well as fresh ideas, a silversmith like no other.
Warren Gatland will have been Wales’ head coach for 12 years when he leaves the position after their involvement in next year’s World Cup ends. He has kept his management team intact throughout, tweaked only in the two years he was on sabbatical with the Lions. They last won the Six Nations title in 2013 and, like Northampton, found that tactics that delivered titles once had dated.

Wales are in a far healthier position than they were for most of the 20 years before Gatland took over, when coaches entered the Arms Park through a revolving door, and he regularly refreshes his squad, afraid to drop no one. Whoever takes over will, like Chris Boyd at Franklin’s Gardens in the summer, face a rebuilding job. A number of players who have made their mark with the Lions as well as Wales will not be around for the 2023 World Cup and there will be a stylistic shift.
New Zealand’s Steve Hansen is preparing for his fourth World Cup with the All Blacks, and second in charge, but the management team is markedly different to the one he joined in 2004. The All Blacks through the years have been not only been receptive to new ideas but pioneering, one of the few to look at the positive possibilities of law changes.
There was a time when New Zealand coaches had to sneak back home after failing to win the World Cup but only defeat to a minnow will sour Hansen’s legacy. Northampton’s supporters never had a chance to say farewell to Mallinder and, while the majority accepted the time for change had arrived, they acknowledged his achievements and viewed his departure with sorrow rather than relief.
It is the opposite with Wenger. The mood before the match at the Emirates Stadium against West Ham, the first after the announcement, was as if a distant cousin had departed rather than a close relative. There were not enough at the ground who could remember that for most of his reign the club had never had it so consistently good. The past is a foreign country; the present tense.

 

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Does Club Rugby need to be Marketed better?

Is rugby popular, or not very popular at all? The answer is, perhaps weirdly, both.
When it comes to international rugby, cup finals, or some annual “special” games, it attracts big numbers. 55,000 fans went to Murrayfield to see Saracens beat Clermont in 2017, 74,000 watched Wales beat Scotland, 82,000 watched England beat Wales and 67,000 saw Scotland turn England over. Indeed, pretty much every international game is a sell-out.

But step away from the cup and international arena into the Premiership and it’s usually a different story.
While in 2017 crowds were up by 10% to an average of 13,833, many clubs simply don’t seem to have much pulling power, much of the time. Last year, table-topping Wasps averaged just over 15,000 in the 32,000 capacity Ricoh arena, despite the fact you would be guaranteed to see some good winning rugby. Harlequins hosted Bath at The Stoop in front of a crowd of 7,450. That is less than Notts Count’s average attendance in the fourth tier of English football.
But it is a confused picture, because when Harlequins play the annual December “Big Game” at Twickenham, over 77,000 can turn up. It’s still Premiership rugby, but it’s a special occasion housed at Twickenham and apparently this makes it irresistible.

Small crowds at some of the grounds are obviously due to limited capacity. Exeter sit atop the league with a ground that holds just 12,800. While there’s nothing worse than being in a 35,000-capacity stadium with 25,000 empty seats, a severely restricted capacity could be a self-perpetuating unpopularity. Surely a side like Exeter who are going to finish first could attract a bigger crowd. After all, fans tend to flock to winners.

It would appear there simply isn’t a strong enough club culture to draw sizeable crowds for most league games, even though the quality of these games is not significantly worse entertainment. How to explain London Irish’s average attendance being about 8-10,000 at the 24,0000-capacity Madeiski but 54,000 at Twickenham for the London Double Header?
Football has a tribal loyalty that seems largely missing from rugby. It may or may not mean fans are less blinkered and one-eyed, but it also means ties to the club are perhaps not as strong. Far fewer people turn up to every game out of loyalty, or even out of mere habit.
The reason for modest (if rising) crowds must actually be both cultural and structural. The lesson from the attendance gulf between “special” games and the rest must be that to pull bigger crowds, more games must somehow be made to be special. Indeed, it is essential for this to happen if the Premiership clubs’ finances to improve.