Brian Ashton: As English coaches are fired, Toulouse thrive on continuity
Saturday 08 May 2010
So three more Premiership directors of rugby have lost their jobs or been moved sideways – very much the trend in England these days.
Across the water in France, meanwhile, Toulouse have reached yet another Heineken Cup final. And what is the most striking factor in the Toulouse story? Continuity. Thirty years ago, when I visited the club as a young coach and saw the work of Pierre Villepreux and Robert Bru at first hand, it immediately struck me that they were building something of value. Since then, there have been only two head coaches: Jean-Claude Skrela and Guy Noves. It seems to me that they might be on to something over there.
Anyone who thinks they can explain the Toulouse phenomenon simply in terms of a large budget and an even larger squad is missing the point completely. By maintaining, with utmost care, the link between generations, they have created an environment in which players fulfil their potential and, by extension, a model for sustainable success. They do not always win, but then, what they do is not always geared towards the next game. What matters to Toulouse is the development of a knowledge-based culture rooted in a consistent approach to the solving of rugby's problems.
There are identifiable threads running through their style of rugby. Toulouse sides always create space in a wide variety of ways; they keep the contest dynamic by staying on their feet whenever possible (there is no tolerance of lazy go-to-grounders); they pass early out of the tackle; their support runners always come from depth; they attack space at close quarters with their trademark inter-passing, thereby turning slow ball into something much more threatening. We are talking about a collective mindset here, based on the thorough understanding that comes from a culture of "involved learning", as opposed to "dependent learning". There is far more to playing for Toulouse than turning up and following instructions.
This explains why, during last week's Heineken Cup semi-final victory over a dangerous Leinster side, they were able to seize the moment in the way they did. Weather conditions being poor at the start of the match, they did not make the mistake of trying too much too soon: instead, they were physical and confrontational in the forward exchanges, kicked at the appropriate moments and placed great store on their defensive organisation. But when the time was right, they moved up several gears and won the game in the space of a dozen minutes.
How did they sense this opportunity for a decisive upping of the pace? There might have been any number of factors: a drying pitch, signs of fatigue among the opposition, the identification of a weak point in Leinster's defensive set-up that was ripe for exploitation. The point is that it was recognised en masse, and it is this that marks the crucial difference between a team that is simply well-drilled and one that is also well-taught and well-coached.
This brings me back to game understanding – or, in too many instances, the lack of game understanding. I was speaking to a couple of international cricketers a few days ago, and they share my fear that in professional sport too much specialised attention from coaches inhibits players, stifling freedom of expression. I'm not suggesting that basic skills should be ignored, but there is a gulf between players who possess those skills in isolation and those who also appreciate how they fit into the overall scheme of things, how they might best be integrated for the benefit of the team as a whole.
What I love about Toulouse is their ability to go down any route on rugby's A-Z street map, taking the direct approach when available but sometimes cruising the outskirts or taking tiny little side roads as a means of reaching their destination. They are a courageous side physically: believe me, they are well capable of smashing their opponents.
But the thing that most distinguishes them is the courage of their philosophy. They ask a huge amount of their players, but give a huge amount in return. When I compare them with some of the clubs nearer home, it does not take me long to work out who has it right.
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