Rugby Union: Cooke leaves glorious monument behind him: Mark Bailey, an England player in the early years of Geoff Cooke's rule, analyses the manager's strengths
Wednesday 02 March 1994
Such an analogy is highly appropriate, for the sparkling new stadium at Twickenham has largely been built on the expectations and interest raised by the achievements of the English team under Cooke's proprietorship since 1987.
Quite simply, Cooke provided the England team with the organisational base required to turn its potential into results. Mike Weston had prepared the foundations in the mid-1980s, but Cooke developed the site.
By introducing intensive team meetings, meticulously prepared and highly focused, Cooke ensured that the England squad acquired and refined a rigorous game-plan. Thus at any moment of the game, on any position of the field, a forward or threequarter could recite the range of options available to the team. Everyone knew what they were trying to attain, and why.
The corollary of this formidable organisation and preparation was a commitment to establishing a stable group of players. By remaining loyal to a hard core of key players, Cooke created a team which knew its components and its objectives intimately, and which was secure in the knowledge that a single mistake would receive a constructive response. The cumulative importance of all this in nurturing team identity and confidence should not be underestimated.
Yet loyalty was not dispensed randomly. Another key factor in Cooke's success was his shrewd judgement of whom to back. Only Cooke recognised that Paul Ackford would shine brightly in the twilight of his career. How many other selectors would have plucked Dewi Morris from the obscurity of Winnington Park? And who else realised that John Elliott's ears and eyes would prove so reliable?
Cooke also communicated with his players, a clear break with the bad old days of silence and insensitivity. A basic point, but - at that stage - an innovation in English rugby. Wherever possible, he would look you in the eye and explain why you had been dropped (Geoff was always looking me in the eye). You might not agree with his decision, but you would accept it.
Yet Cooke's regime was more oligarchy than full-blown democracy. Contact with many players remained irregular and distant. Open discussion was restricted to an inner council of very senior players whose power in policy and selection was consequently raised to unprecedented heights. Will Carling's style and role of captaincy is an artefact of the Cooke era.
Another quality has been Cooke's ability to learn quickly from his mistakes. Some of his early selections reflected his background in northern club and county rugby, sometimes to the exclusion of proven players from the best club sides in the country. This may have been a case of over-compensation after years of perceived favouritism by England selectors towards London and the South West. But the experiment did not last long.
More recently, Cooke and Ian McGeechan succeeded in turning a first Test defeat into a stunning victory for the Lions in the second against New Zealand. Defeat in the third and decisive Test merely provided fodder for England's victory against the All Blacks in November.
Cooke's resignation arrives ironically at the most challenging time of his managerial career, as England seek to remedy a series of halting and uncertain performances. Are England currently experiencing a temporary bout of hiccups, or a more deep-seated attack of indigestion?
Is it possible that the feeder system of young players has become clogged by loyalty to older ones? Stability is but one by-product of loyalty: another, potentially, is ossification. A simple law of economics states that, without technical change, more of the same inputs will achieve a state of diminishing returns.
Has the emphasis on organisation and preparation institutionalised England's tactics at the expense of spontaneity? The outstanding side of 1990 to '92 possessed so much firepower and control that a well-conceived game-plan, based on forward dominance, was all they needed to steamroller their way to successive Grand Slams. Yet a team with less talent require greater tactical variety and flexibility on the field of play if they are to win matches consistently.
By the time England return from South Africa this summer, we will have some clearer answers to these questions. Personally, I suspect the England squad is plain knackered from too much rugby.
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