Alan Watkins: Do not expect coaches to behave as Anglican bishops

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More than a week after the events in question, people are still going on about the performance of the referee, Jonathan Kaplan, in the Ireland v England match in Dublin.

More than a week after the events in question, people are still going on about the performance of the referee, Jonathan Kaplan, in the Ireland v England match in Dublin. More precisely, they are going on about the response which the England head coach, Andy Robinson, made to it. If England had won the match, as they might quite easily have done, Robinson would not have spoken as he did. Kaplan could have blown an erroneous whistle till the cows came home, and no one would have paid the slightest attention.

Well, Robinson's Irish counterpart, Eddie O'Sullivan, might have had a few thoughts to impart, though I doubt whether he would have echoed the England coach, who said that Kaplan had been refereeing only one side. If O'Sullivan had said something along the same lines, it would have been treated in the English papers as an Irish domestic matter; much as the criticisms made of the French coach, Bernard Laporte, are reported in this country as concerning the French alone.

Certainly Robinson's predecessor, Sir Clive Woodward, would not have had his two penn'orth as he did here, saying that the England coach had "not done anything wrong''. I do not know the precise circumstances in which Sir Clive made this somewhat ridiculous assertion. Robinson's remarks were only just short of the well-known injunction to the referee to get a white stick and preferably a guide dog to go with it. It is difficult to see how, even though short of this, Robinson's words could have been more wrong.

But then again, I do not know the circumstances in which he uttered them. I have never been either a referee or a coach, but I have been a journalist for 45 years. I can tell you that one of the - perfectly legitimate - tricks of the trade is to get one well-known person to say something wounding or damaging about another one. It applies to sportsmen (or sportswomen) as much as it does to politicians. In this respect, journalists are like big boys in a playground who take a delight in making two smaller boys fight each other.

I do not know whether this was what happened with Robinson. If it did, his course was perfectly simple, to say: "I may have my private opinions, but I never comment publicly on the performance of referees.'' In any case, there is a bureaucratic procedure that can be carried out. The management can complete a form detailing the alleged deficiencies of the referee in the match just over. Why anyone agrees to become a referee at all under these conditions I do not understand, but there it is. It seemed that England officials did not at first complete this procedure in relation to Kaplan.

But there is another way of looking at Robinson's outburst. It is to stop expecting rugby coaches to behave like Anglican bishops or High Court judges when they more closely resemble boxing managers or front-bench politicians, prepared to stop at nothing in pursuit of success for their team. If England had not lost their third match on the trot in the Six Nations Championship, Robinson would not have said - or been tempted to say - what he did. It is England's lack of present success that is at the base of Robinson's troubles.

He has brought many of these troubles on himself. For instance, he has been rightly criticised for taking off Henry Paul after 25 minutes in one of the pre-Christmas internationals and giving him precious little encouragement since. But his real offence was not to bruise Paul's finer feelings. As an experienced former league player, Paul must be accustomed by now to a few blows to his self-esteem.

No, what Robinson did wrong in that match was, by his substitutes policy, to leave England criminally uncovered both in goal-kicking and at outside-half: with the consequence that by the end of the game the now forgotten Andy Gomarsall, a scrum-half, was performing both functions.

Likewise, Mathew Tait was shown the stars and promptly returned to the chip shop. James Noon was put at inside centre to accommodate Tait and has now been shifted to outside centre: with the consequence that, at the time of writing, there is no place for the most promising centre in English rugby, Ollie Smith.

It is admittedly no help to Robinson that Smith's club, Leicester, play him on the wing when it suits their convenience. That is not Robinson's fault. But many of his troubles derive not merely from himself, but from the selfishness of the Zurich Premiership clubs and their disposition to work players much too hard for the players' own good.

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