Rugby Union: Wappett nurtures basic instinct

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The Independent Online
THE Bradford Grammar School side who won the National Under 18s Cup at Twickenham last season, whipping RGS Guildford 75-17 in the final, came as close as is possible to rugby perfection. They were an exceptional team, admittedly blessed with more than their fair share of gifted individuals. They were also superbly drilled and coached, which is why last week's appointment of Geoff Wappett as coach of the England Under 18 side is significant, not only for schools rugby but ultimately for the senior game.

Knowledgable and astute, Wappett, has, during his 13 years at Bradford, established a coaching structure which, to a large extent, is insulated against the constantly shifting population which makes schools rugby both a joy and a frustration. A lock or No 8 who gained selection for Cumberland and Westmoreland as a teenager, Wappett was also good enough to captain English and British Universities and to hold his place in a Loughborough College side bristling with current and embryonic international players. Had it not been for a knee-ligament injury which prematurely ended his playing career while he was at Broughton Park, he might well have gone on to greater things.

It was at Loughborough that Wappett fell under the influence of Jim Greenwood, a prophet denied the honour that was due both in his native Scotland and in the country where he devoted the most productive years of his life to encouraging and nurturing young talent. 'Jim taught me the value of thinking for myself and not being a slave to theory or fashionable practice. Coaches today are talking about total rugby as if they had discovered the concept. But Jim Greenwood was preaching and writing on the subject 25 years ago.'

If too many of Greenwood's words fell on stony ground they were fully absorbed by Wappett who sallied forth into the outside world with the swaggering confidence and brashness of youth. 'Looking back I realise that I didn't have an original thought in my head, although, in common with most aspiring youngsters, I thought I knew it all.' But what Wappett did have in almost unlimited amounts was enthusiasm. Denied by injury the opportunity to play the game he loved, Wappett did the next best thing. His first post was at William Hulmes Grammar School where he was put in charge of the 1st XV. Although he was still parrotting the words and ideas of his mentors, Jim Greenwood and John Burgess, Wappett was gradually learning the art of making the best use of limited resources.

'The laws of the game may be complex but the game itself is simple, yet you sometimes get the feeling that coaches are in competition with each other to produce the flashiest move when really all that is required is to focus on the basics'. And that is precisely what Wappett did. 'Above all I wanted the boys to understand the game of rugby. A player can be the most gifted footballer in the school but not necessarily the most knowledgeable about the game.'

Wappett's theory is that it is only through a complete understanding of the game that correct decisions can be made on the field. 'I am forever encouraging the boys to think for themselves and to make tactical changes whenever and wherever they think it necessary. At Bradford we approach every game as if it were an A-level examination and every game is part of the learning process.'

Wappett is sceptical about current coaching trends aimed at relieving monotony by inventing a variety of different ways of doing the same thing. There are, he believes, no thrilling short cuts through the undergrowth of fundamentals like passing. 'But what is crucial,' Wappett says, 'is to relate every training exercise to the game situation, and in this respect no country does it better than New Zealand.'

Wappett, who had taken the trouble to follow the Lions to New Zealand in the summer, was impressed by the New Zealanders' attitude to the game, which can only be fully appreciated by seeing for oneself, as Wappett did, the almost fanatical zeal with which New Zealanders immerse themselves in all aspects of the game. 'You can always tell a New Zealand team whether at schoolboy level or on the international field by their stamp and style. There is, of course, a certain predictability about their play but where we so often get it wrong in this country is by equating the predictable with the prosaic.'

Wappett has plenty to ponder during the coming weeks as he assesses England's bright young prospects. He is intensely proud of his new appointment but the fires of ambition are far from being extinguished. 'Remember that both John Elders and Mike Davis graduated from coaching the schools to the full England side. So you may not have heard the last of me yet'.