It is hardly a suitable Christmas message, but the word that ought to be preached to the ranks of all those who underachieved during 2007 is fear. Particularly where there is a lack of genuine competition for places too many players don't know what it is like to be fearful of their jobs and operate in a comfort zone that is taking the edge off their game.
On Michael Parkinson's show last week, David Beckham talked about being frightened of coaches he'd played under, and every coach I encountered in my career had an authority I feared and respected. If you dread upsetting your coach, it is the basis of your motivation and helps to develop self-discipline.
Without it, it is easy to feel unchallenged and that, plus a general lack of respect for those in power, breeds what I call the soft culture which in Welsh rugby recently has led to a level of off-field behaviour that has resulted in court appearances.
There is too much pandering to players from the top, and it is a problem that doesn't only concern rugby. The warm welcome England's new football supremo, Fabio Capello, has received is partly due to his reputation as a harsh and unforgiving taskmaster and his declared intention of not standing for any prima-donna nonsense.
Warren Gatland, the hard-nosed Kiwi who is bringing a similar philosophy to his new job of coaching the Welsh rugby team, has the same need to galvanise some improved action from a bunch of players too accustomed to failure.
You could scarcely imagine two more different worlds than English football and Welsh rugby, but they have shared a lack of strong leadership on and off the field and it is significant that both have felt it necessary to seek a solution from outside. When you require a sharp introduction of the fear factor, it can only come from an outsider with a big reputation.
Brian Ashton's reappointment as England's head coach is hardly going to instil fear, but you can't accuse England of under-achieving they reached the World Cup final. The sheer weight of numbers means there is so much competition for places that complacency doesn't feature in England's ranks. There has been some jostling among the players to claim credit for their transformation, but now they've got the recipe it doesn't matter how they found it and it is right that Ashton should carry on in the role. But he might find it advisable to create a more strict regime.
There is nothing to be gained from giving players too much say. They see it as a sign of weakness. Part of Wales's problem in recent years came from head coaches allowing players too much leeway. Graham Henry was the last Welsh coach to instil fear and respect in his troops, but that's an integral part of the competitive culture in New Zealand and other southern-hemisphere countries. It helps, of course, that in those countries their entire structure is dominated by rivalry for places. Fear of not performing well enough is ever-present.
It doesn't help the Welsh cause that not enough class players are being produced to create that competitive atmosphere. Players who don't feel threatened, who get chosen on reputation, easily lose their edge. Gatland will cut through this complacency, but in the long run Wales need a fuller flow of talent coming through the system. That's why I would have made the appointment of an elite performance director as high a priority as finding a head coach. It is vital that the Welsh Rugby Union, and the Welsh Assembly, find the resources to invest in the future of the national game from school level upwards.
Wales have plenty of good coaches and eager volunteer help but so little in terms of finance and support. The supply of class players needs speeding up otherwise we will have something really to be fearful about.Reuse content