Story by Lawrence Nolan
Planet Rugby

Simon Raiwalui stepped down following his short but highly successful eight-month stint in the wake of the World Cup quarter-final defeat to England, mostly citing family reasons. He leaves quite the legacy though, with Fiji stronger than ever both in terms of natural talent and in terms of player development pathways, courtesy of the Fijian Drua team in Super Rugby. The union itself has not always been the easiest to work for, however, with both Raiwalui’s departure and that of Vern Cotter earlier in the year bearing witness to the fact that a coach might face more challenges than just bringing together a talented squad of players. Almost certainly, the first challenge will be to not be the team finishing last in World Rugby’s new annual tournament, however.

The post is available once again after Frenchman Sebastian Bertrank stepped down just four weeks into the job, citing irreconcilable differences between the time commitments between the coaching role and his role at the French Ministry of Sport, a combination which, in retrospect, looks like a proposition that would never have worked out well. Whoever does take the role on will have one of the most important legacy tasks in the history of the game in Portugal: building on the success of the 2023 World Cup campaign. But Portugal has a good rugby culture and there are many, many worse places to go and live. This ought to be a role that interests many.

This would normally be one of the most sought-after roles in international rugby, but you’d forgive the huddled masses of currently unemployed coaches for opting out. A union that looks both directionless and worryingly clique-y, a domestic landscape disunited and with the game occupying both elite status but also a low ranking in the list of national hobbies and passions, Australia is in need of a knowledgeable, experienced coach-cum-diplomat-cum-mentor-cum PR-genius to drag the game forward again after the multiple disasters of the Jones tenure.

Levan Maisashvili is the interim coach for now having stepped down after what was perceived to be a poor performance at the World Cup. Georgia finished bottom of their pool, having failed to put away a resurgent Portugal team and been the bounce of a ball away from beating Fiji. Maisashvili will be tough to replace. A hugely-respected coach in the country who has been in the national set-up in a variety of roles since 2000, he has also survived a flirtation with death from Covid in South Africa. Players of the Black Lion team, which will be in the European Challenge Cup this season and which he has also coached, publicly dedicated a win in the Rugby Europe Super Cup to him last year. But whoever takes over will be charged with ensuring Georgia remain top of the pile of an increasingly competitive Rugby Europe Championship, which will also serve as the qualification tournament for 2027.

Esteban Meneses stepped down after the World Cup after seven years at the helm. The Argentine was not only the first person to take Uruguay to two World Cups, he also presided over their first win in 2019, over Fiji, and their second in this edition, over Namibia. Uruguay also memorably managed to stop France registering a bonus-point win, and were only a point behind with a quarter of the game to go. Meneses has been outspoken about the new eligibility laws working against Uruguay, saying home-grown teams are now further disadvantaged because they can’t recapture players in the same way the Pacific Islands can. But whoever takes over will find a strong-spirited and entirely home-grown – and proud – squad of talented players to work with.

Scott Lawrence, a former Eagles flanker and highly-successful long-time servant of the Life University team, is the current interim coach, presumably up to and until a new CEO is appointed. USA Rugby has been a mess for some time, with former coach Gary Gold lamenting the lack of opportunities he had to get all his players together at once and get some good quality training in. But the country also has the 2031 World Cup to look forward to and build towards, while the fledgling Major League Rugby is starting to solidify as a player base. Whoever takes over has a high-risk opportunity with potentially legendary rewards.

Toutai Kefu bade farewell after nearly eight years in the role, overseeing an indifferent 2023 World Cup campaign which admittedly was always going to be an uphill struggle against South Africa, Ireland and Scotland. But he voiced his frustration at the rugby landscape in his final press conference, saying: “There are two simple things (Tonga needs to improve), we get to spend more time together, more preparation time, and the other one is playing more competitive games. We play six games a year and maybe one or two tier-one games in that block. What do the tier-one teams play? They play more than 15, 20. It’s hard to compete against teams who are really well-oiled machines.” Kefu, and his family, also survived an horrific machete attack in their family home during his tenure two years ago, which likely played a role in his decision. With Tonga now able to call on birthright internationals who have played for other countries, the next coach has an exciting opportunity to take the team further forward.

Jamie Joseph is off back to New Zealand at the end of the year, after seven years that included a home World Cup quarter-final in 2019 and a narrow exit after a thrilling match against Argentina in the pool stages in 2023. He built strongly on the legacy of Jones’ 2015 squad, which has also benefitted from the establishment of Japan’s domestic league as an elite one. Japan is now all but a tier one nation with regular fixtures forthcoming against the world elite on a regular basis as a result of the new World Rugby tournament. As with Fiji, the next coach’s task is to make sure that the Brave Blossoms are not that tournament’s whipping boys.