Rugby union: Play the coach at your peril

Jonathan Davies looks at the dangers of the man in charge being on the field
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The Independent Online
Potential player-coaches will not have been encouraged by Mark Ring's departure from West Hartlepool last week. He was one of the first in rugby union's new era to become a player-coach 16 months ago and although I have too much faith in his ability to worry about his career prospects, I do have doubts about the future of those who attempt to mix business on the pitch with business off it - especially in the top grade.

I don't want to worry Francois Pienaar, who has just being given that role at Saracens, but a player-coach must have total control and that is difficult at a high-rolling club where the policy seems to be to buy every top player who becomes available regardless of whether he fits the blend of the team you are trying to build.

Ring followed another international player to the North-east last season. Rob Andrew joined Newcastle with a similar brief to call the shots from the middle of the pitch rather than the middle of the stand. It is not my intention to make any comparison between their experiences other than to point out that there was hardly a senior player in union whose ears didn't prick up at such opportunities. Everyone was still getting used to players getting paid - the realisation that there were extremely good pickings to be had in the twilight of your career by combining playing with coaching was even more interesting.

But that prospect might be dimmer now. Ring's 16 months in charge was a lot longer than his two predecessors', but it hadn't been enough to lift the club clear of the First Division relegation zone. When you consider the power and resources that were ranged against his team this season, their lack of success was hardly surprising. At least, he has gained valuable if painful experience at a job that is short of trustworthy recruits.

Professional rugby union is so young we're still not sure who are the best coaches of any description. Even those with long service and high reputations have yet to prove themselves totally in the hurly-burly that union has become.

And player-coaches are, understandably, the rawest of them all. Rob Andrew was handed a better deal than Ring. He took over a team in the Second Division and had unlimited funds to spend on new players. Looking at the talent he's signed, he seems to have done a terrific job but until promotion is clinched and we see how he does in the higher grade next season we won't know for certain how good he is.

Paul Turner did a wonderful job as player-coach of Sale. For some reason it went sour and he left to join Bedford, another crack second division team who might still lose out on promotion. And, whoever goes up, will they do any better than Northampton who haven't exactly set the First Division alight after completely dominating the second last season?

The lower divisions are where a new player-coach should start. He can learn about running a team away from the pressures of the first division and his skill and experience will be much more appreciated by his players. My brother-in-law Phil Davies is proving this with Leeds in the Third Division. But it is not easy, as I found out this season when I had a spell coaching the backs at Cardiff.

I've been a captain often enough, and whether I am or not I always have plenty to say to those around me on a rugby pitch, but coaching and trying to blend a group of players to play your way is a lot different.

Any player nearing the end of his career fancies the chance to continue to have an influence on the game but he needs to find a club prepared to hand control to a rookie and then be patient. The shortage of proven coaches doesn't leave lower-league clubs with much option, but many a veteran player will be carefully eyeing the situation now that the sacking season is under way.