Dean Ryan: 'England have to be careful in the clamour for youth'

Dean Ryan, the Gloucester coach, reveals why it would be wrong to sweep aside the old in the desire to build for the next World Cup, and why he did not watch the final
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The Independent Online

For a man who admits that he did not watch England's efforts to retain the Webb Ellis Cup last Saturday, that he went to a family party instead, that he cannot be bothered to see the video and that, by and large, he was left disappointed by the tournament, Dean Ryan is taking a great deal of hope from the World Cup.

But then, as the overseer of the finest collection of young talent in the land, he has a vested interest in the immediate fall-out from what was purported to be the greatest rugby show in history.

"I like to think the World Cup has brought these lads a bit of time to come through," said the Gloucester coach, casting his proud eye over his club's resplendent training headquarters as the squad prepared for today's EDF Energy Cup opener against Newcastle. "That might not have been the case if England had gone out in the group stages. It will be easier now. They should be allowed to move into an environment that has been seen to be successful. It's a lot harder to create enthusiasm for a new group if it's come on the back of a negative. The pressure to do well straight away is that much more intense."

Still, it is not all "swing lows" and "coming fors" to carry England to that brighter future. As Ryan sat there, thinking of the likely effects of seven frenzied weeks in France, he was asked to go back four years and recall what came to pass in that euphoric aftermath. "Mistakes were made," he acknowledged, although as to the exact specifics he is not so sure. All he is certain of is what would constitute a gross error this time around. "I do hope they don't suddenly think, 'Right next World Cup, let's start building a group, let's get rid of the old and get in the new.' Because the first question should be whether you're good enough to play for your country. You should never be picked ahead of someone just because of your age. Never. We have to be very careful in the clamour for youth and this desperation to build. Youth needs to be good enough first. Sometimes we lose sight of that in the vision for the next World Cup."

In other words, be careful with Ryan Lamb, Anthony Allen, Olly Morgan, Luke Narraway and all the other boys who have been enjoying something of a glorious September and October themselves as they have carried Gloucester to the top of the Guinness Premiership. During this time, many might have peered down the England squad list and noticed that, remarkably, there was not a single player from the side that happened to finish first in the league table last season and imagine Ryan might be slightly peeved. Not a bit of it. Try relieved.

True, the old bludgeon of the back row might have some room in that notoriously hard heart of his to feel for a few of the older Cherry and White heads who were, for whatever reason, absent – Iain Balshaw, Mike Tindall, James Simpson-Daniel – but as for the next generation? "It was a good thing they weren't there," he states unequivocally. "They wouldn't have made a difference and the exposure might well have been damaging, especially in the early stages."

Perhaps Ryan can sound so sure because of the experience that befell his centre Allen, a lesson he clearly wishes would become salutary in the England team room. It was November 2006, the Andy Robinson regime was clearly in acute need of someone, anyone, to breathe life into a moribund backline and the then 20-year-old was chucked into his debut international against some team called New Zealand. Ryan was known to be disillusioned about Allen's premature elevation and rather angry when he was jettisoned from the entire set-up after the autumn internationals. He talked of his player arriving at national base camp in "good form and coming back in bad form", of a wounded psyche that Gloucester had to piece back together, but now Ryan just wonders why he was not consulted more extensively and prays such a self-damning scenario does not unfold again.

"They did talk to us about Anthony, but not to any great depth. And we did make our opinion pretty well-voiced that we thought it was too early. To drop him into an All-Black Test and say, 'Let's make it work'? Well, not everything's definite, but it was surely only ever going to be a negative going to come out of that." Indeed, 12 months on and Ryan believes that Allen is only now approaching the requisite maturity. "He's more complete than he was a year ago and because of that he's more capable of being exposed. But that doesn't mean he should be starting the next Test."

What Ryan would like to see implemented – or or should that read "re-implemented"? – is the process of the young players first being given a chance to acclimatise. "They shouldn't just be thrown in and then hurled out." It is all about "tiers", he claims, of youngsters coming through to push the established and eventually usurping them, and yes, maybe the club coaches should have more input. "Not necessarily for them to follow the line of what we think, but just more conversation so they can gather information. An international coach has a very isolated role. What you gain from coaching a player Monday to Friday, week in week out, is a greater depth of knowledge of what he can and can't do.

"I do get a little bit frustrated when people select only from what they see in the game. You're going to get a dominant image of someone who breaks the line and runs 30 metres, but you're not necessarily going to get one of the guy running a good line to create that space. So as you build that picture over 10 or 12 Premiership clubs it's the natural instinct to retain those dominant images. But if you do that you end up losing some of the workload required to run the side. Look at England in the World Cup. Some of the guys that ended up as the front-line players weren't frontline players when it started. They [the coaching team] probably didn't have enough understanding of their value prior to working with them."

That they managed to pull through impressed Ryan greatly, just as it did everyone, although he does not believe that such ad hoc mayhem should be a blueprint for any future campaign. Furthermore, he feels that the safety-catch attitudes adopted by the big guns played directly into England's faltering hands.

"One of the disappointments of the World Cup from a pure rugby perspective is that sides such as France, New Zealand, probably South Africa even, didn't take the responsibility to win the games and that allowed nations like England, who had a pretty contained game plan, to stay competitive with them. The fancied teams didn't go out there with the mindset that 'We're going to win this game by being better than you'. I would like to talk to some of those coaches and ask why. It may have been that the pressure the World Cup creates means it's more difficult to take responsibility. But that'd be really disappointing if it was true. I would certainly want any side I was involved with to take responsibility for a game's outcome rather than just leaving it to a flick of a coin, a drop of the ball, a penalty here or there."

If that sounds suspiciously like a "come-and-get-me-I'm-a-visionary" plea, it isn't. Anything but. Ryan laughs when you ask whether in the midst of England's group stage humiliation he began to ponder the chances of him assuming the head coach's role. When the chuckles stop, the 42-year-old shakes his head dismissively. "It amuses me to be honest, as whenever it's mentioned now I'm always high up on that list. It's a classic case of see who's at the top of the Premiership, see who's English. Ah, it must be him down at Gloucester. I'd like to think a bit more research would go into it. And anyway, it's not a throwaway comment, but my focus is genuinely on finishing what I started here two or three years ago. We can go so far."

To many experts' minds they already have; and not just between the confines of that whitewash. When Ryan stepped up on Nigel Melville's departure three years ago Gloucester were training on a school pitch, but now the academy at Hartpury College stretches out like a sports scientist's dream. There has been a parallel development with the squad that was impressive enough anyway before the summer's acquisitions which included Lesley Vainikolo, the terrifying try machine from league, and Chris Paterson, the spookily accurate goalkicker from Scotland. Last Sunday's defeat at London Irish may have stopped the unbeaten bandwagon, but this was hardly the screech of wheels coming off. A loosening of the hubcaps, maybe.

There is plenty of time for re-tightening now, though, as a sheet is thrown over the Premiership for the start of this, the Anglo-Welsh Cup, a tournament reviled by some, tolerated by most and loved only, it seems, by the regions from the tuneful side of the Severn. Ryan is quite honest in his drawing up of his team's priorities, and the EDF is some way south of the Premiership and the Heineken Cup, but that does not mean anything but head down and hard at it against a similarly youthful Newcastle this afternoon.

"This actually comes at a great time for us. We've had seven or eight players who are either new or coming back from the World Cup and they aren't used to running our systems. In the more attritional, intense climate of the Premiership we would have to integrate them in ones or twos over three or four weeks, but then you woul-dn't want that level of talent denied to you."

But what about in a non-World Cup year? Is not this a competition more for the accountant than the coach, for the cash-heads instead of the Shedheads? "I don't wholly subscribe to all that 'too much rugby' stuff. For the minority, perhaps; for those who are exposed to the internationals. And that's where the argument rages, especially when it comes to 'bolt-on' tournaments like these – whether they should be playing or rested. That conflict looks close to being resolved, thankfully. All I'd say is it is very difficult to have a strong domestic league without your best players.

"And I think that's one of the things that has come out of this World Cup. It was a good illustration that a strong domestic league does support a strong international team. There is now good evidence that you cannot devalue the domestic game in the interests of the national side. A few nations have tried. Ireland had a poor World Cup yet everyone went in thinking they had the perfect domestic model. Like New Zealand, they allowed the national team to dominate. I think that's been a failure.

"So the World Cup has blown that myth away and others, too. You know, 'We're playing too much in England', 'These players are too old', 'There's too many foreigners in our league'? English teams do produce quality players when they're in the right environment and well-coached and well-supported. It did show the Premiership in a good light. A very good light."

Though not good enough to command Ryan's attention, obviously. "Yeah, it was my niece's 21st and I went to her party. I did video the final and watched it in bits. But I had that many people tell me that it was a crap game, that no, I didn't bother." It is easy to sense Ryan is far more interested in the future. It cannot come soon enough. At Gloucester that is. England should wait a while.

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