Paul Gustard has been unveiled as the new head of rugby at Harlequins, with the former back-row set to leave his role with England after next month’s tour of South Africa and replace John Kingston, who was sacked by the club after a disappointing 2017/18 season.
“Opportunities like this don’t come along very often,” Gustard said in a statement. “To be given the chance to lead a club as rich in talent, heritage and support as Harlequins is hugely exciting.”
The news, which although widely reported still comes as a shock, will see England plunged further into their mini-crisis as they lose their defence coach little over 15 months out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Forty-two-year-old Gustard will leave his position with the Rugby Football Union after three seasons with the national team under Eddie Jones’ leadership, and the timing of his decision raises further questions about the environment created under the Australian, given that Japan 2019 should be at the centre of everyone’s thoughts heading into next season.
“I am a proud Englishman and it has been a privilege to represent my country and work under Eddie,” Gustard added. “There have been some incredible memories which I will cherish, and I will look back proudly on my contribution with England. I am desperate for England to do well as we push on to World Cup glory next year.
“My relationship with Eddie is strong and positive. He has supported me in accepting this new role and I will continue to have a strong relationship with him on our tour to South Africa and beyond. He was the first to give me an opportunity in 2008 and again in 2016 when he recruited me for England. I will always be thankful to him.
“However, I am now ready to lead a team and I am thrilled to have this chance at one of the Premiership’s biggest clubs. I just couldn’t turn this opportunity down. It is incredibly exciting to be part of the next chapter at Quins.
“I would like to thank the RFU and Eddie personally for their support and for allowing me to leave early to take up this fantastic opportunity with Harlequins.”
Having represented Leicester Tigers, London Irish and Saracens during his playing career, Gustard retired at the end of the 2007/08 season, before being offered a role as assistant coach at the club by Jones, who had taken up the job as head coach.
Given the pair’s relationship goes back a decade, it is a major surprise to see Gustard leave Jones’ coaching team for a role in the Premiership, even if it does represent an opportunity to pave his own way as a head coach in the top flight.
Harlequins will also name a general manager in the near future that will oversee areas such as contract negotiations, player recruitment and off-field matters, with Gustard responsible for training and match days in a similar relationship that is currently employed by Gloucester with Johan Ackermann and David Humpreys, among other clubs.
During his time with England, Gustard – who replaced current Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell – has been criticised publicly by Jones for England’s leaky defence, which again return in the 2018 Six Nations as they conceded three tries against Scotland and Ireland, two against Italy and one against France, with only the victory over Wales seeing them keep their try line intact. Jones has in the past brought in help from outside into his staff, with Melbourne Storm coach Jason Ryles helping out on the defensive side of things in late 2016, but he said last week that there is no plan in place to deal with Gustard’s departure beyond the summer tour.
“I don’t have a contingency plan for staff, I don’t have one for every staff member. If a situation arises then I’ll deal with it,” Jones said. “I don’t know anything to the contrary (Gustard travelling to South Africa). I don’t deal in rumours. If I dealt in rumours I’d see shadows in the corner of every room.”
One man who could be in the frame to replace Gustard is current Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards, given that he was also part of the three-man shortlist for the Quins job and had a final interview on the same day as Gustard. Edwards has been part of Wales’ set-up under Warren Gatland since 2008 and also worked with the Kiwi at Wasps, but it is not yet known if Edwards is looking for a way out of the Wales national team or simply saw the Harlequins opportunity as one he couldn’t pass up.
Edwards is also being touted as a potential replacement for Wigan Warriors head coach Shaun Wane, who on Monday announced that he will leave the Super League side at the end of the season. Former Wigan captain Edwards, who made more than 460 appearances for the club and remains the most decorated player in the club’s history, has said that he would be open to a return to the 13-man game, but remains contracted with Wales until the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
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