Tom Rees Column
Who'd be a coach?
November 26, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson has been under the cosh in recent weeks © Getty Images
Who would want to be a coach? I've just given it a go, and to be honest I'm not too sure that it'll be topping my to-do list when I finish playing.
On this occasion, it took the form of an evening spent in the company of around 80 13-16 year olds and now my throat is so sore it feels like I've tried to swallow a cheese grater. I'm actually a qualified coach, having taken a level 2 coaching course a couple of summers ago with some fellow Wasps players, and it comes in handy when Joe Worsley calls you at the last minute, asking if you can step in and cover for him at High Wycombe Rugby Club (apparently crutches don't make coaching any easier).
The session actually went pretty well and the kids were all brilliant, who despite the cold, displayed levels of attentiveness and enthusiasm not normally associated with teenage boys. The thing is though, this was a one off session, where I can come in as a professional player, organise a couple of drills, bark some orders and hopefully everyone leaves fairly happy. For their regular coaches trying to keep the guys motivated and entertained on a weekly basis, whilst hopefully improving them as rugby players, is a far greater challenge and not just for those dealing with children and teens but any coach.
Add huge amounts of press interest and pressure to this and it might be an idea what England have gone through in recent weeks. It was a disappointing day against Argentina and the mood around Twickenham afterwards reminded me of the Wasps dressing room at times last season.
In many home games, despite beating the opposition who were often above us in the league, the manner of our performance left us feeling more frustrated than if we'd lost. I felt that our displays only reached the level we'd expect of ourselves at the end of the season, when having missed out on the possibility of a play-off place, we relaxed for the last couple of games and started to enjoy playing. This is not easy to do at the best of times, let alone during a difficult autumn series, but whilst they were unable to secure a win against New Zealand last weekend, I felt the performance was a definite step in the right direction. The individuals in the team started to look like the players we know them to be from their clubs, and I felt James Haskell in particular had one of his best performances for England to date.
One of the criticisms of the England team, and rugby in general at the moment, is the lack of tries and free flowing, entertaining rugby. There are many opinions as to why this is the case, overly physically developed players, dropping skill levels, poor coaching, poor refereeing and more.
My own is that it's actually the current laws of the game that are the biggest factor. I don't claim to have invented this standpoint, but I will explain why I think this is the main issue and how I think it came about. The powers that be, with nothing but good intentions and an aim to increase rugby's popularity, decide something must be done to make the game a more enjoyable spectacle.
They will have discussed what provides the greatest excitement to spectators and like most will have agreed on attacking rugby and the scoring of tries. It's reasonably well accepted that turnover ball against a disorganised defence is the most promising for an attack looking to score, and so rules are changed and referees are instructed to officiate the breakdown in a manner that will provide the most opportunities for turnovers. Brilliant; more turnovers, more tries, more fun had all round.
The thing is, rugby players, much like human beings are able to adapt to their environment, and with retaining the ball at breakdowns such a lottery, have quickly realised that the most successful tactic to win the game (and let's not forget that it is a competition first and foremost) is to kick, either for territory or just to try and force the opposition into mistakes, and so we now get games of tennis being played out on rugby pitches. I also think it's not fair to criticise if you don't have something resembling an alternative, and whilst I'm sure some will think me unadventurous, unimaginative, or simply wrong, I didn't see what was wrong with the rules as they stood a few years ago. Teams were able to attack reasonably freely as turnovers had to be hard earned and although there were certainly some incredibly dull games to watch, there were many more entertaining ones, even if there weren't always tons of tries. I know the game is now part of the entertainment industry, but surely the integrity of the sport has to come first.
On the issue of entertainment, I was one the twelve and a half thousand at Twickenham to watch the England women take on their New Zealand counterparts after the men's international. I don't think it relevant to directly compare the two, as the woman's game is amateur, but viewed in any context this was a very good game of rugby. It was tight and competitive with a level of skill that was all the more impressive given the conditions. Congratulations to the women's team for their first victory over the Black Ferns in eight years and all the best for the up coming 2010 World Cup here in England.
Wasps & England flanker Tom Rees writes a fortnightly column for ESPNScrum