Watching some very strange goings-on at the line-out during last weekend's London Irish-Bath game at the Madejski Stadium – both sides seemed obsessed with off-the-top possession from the front, which exposed the outside-halves, Chris Malone and Butch James, to the close attentions of two destructive England flankers in the contrasting shapes of Lewis Moody and Steffon Armitage – snapshots of contests past flashed through my mind.
I could not help thinking of Serge Betsen, the Frenchman known as the "Grim Reaper", and his harrying of the young Saracens stand-off Owen Farrell the previous week, and once I had a picture of Betsen in my mind, images of his ruthless dismantling of Jonny Wilkinson in Paris a few years ago came flooding back.
Another thing occurred to me. By their own admission, a vast majority of coaches at all levels of the game do not spend nearly enough time with those players, principally No 10s, who operate in the firing line. These are the people who need to be put under the correct kind of pressure in training if they are to maximise their own performance and, by extension, the performance of the team as a whole. On the tick-box list of coaching priorities, the development of positional skills lags far behind technical improvements at scrum and line-out. The way I see it, this is a nonsense.
It is often observed and widely accepted that the demands on the man in the No 10 position are among the most extreme in the game. He is consistently at the hub of it, in each and every respect: physically and technically, as well as in terms of game understanding and mental strength. We coaches can, if we so wish, lighten the load to a degree by supplying our outside-halves with what amounts to an American Football-style "playbook", full of set moves, phase calls, patterns and other constructs designed to dictate what happens in this attacking channel or that area of the pitch. Yet while this may give a player a plan to follow, it will not educate him in the ways of rugby wayfinding or give him the confidence to interpret a situation and arrive at the optimum decision.
Of course, many of the great No 10s in rugby history were blessed by having outstanding players operating next to them – inside at scrum-half, outside at centre or, on a few rare occasions, both. As the modern game evolves and grows ever more dynamic, both in pace and in physicality, it is increasingly essential that the decision-makers in a side stick together and feed off each other. A No 10 operating alone, in not-so-splendid isolation, cuts a forlorn figure.
Yet for all that, there is no escaping the fact that the outside-half inhabits a hostile environment – one in which he cannot hope to survive without the right attributes, no matter what help might be on offer from his colleagues. That being the case, it is completely counter-productive for coaches to create a training-field comfort zone for their No 10. Instead, they should constantly seek to challenge him, to turn up the heat on him, to force him into new ways of thinking under pressure that will, in the fullness of time, give him the ability to create order from the chaos around him.
This reality of rugby decision-making at the top level is so harsh, there is no earthly point making life artificially easy for a No 10 in practice. From Monday to Friday, the outside-half should find his space being cut down, his thinking time being reduced and his technique being subjected to searching examination after searching examination. Why? Because this is what he will experience when he comes up against the Betsens of this world on a Saturday. When he receives the ball going sideways or backwards and the open-side flanker is licking his lips at the prospect of a kill, that tough love on the training field will be worth its weight in gold.
It is too easy for an outside-half to buy himself breathing space at difficult moments by simply kicking the ball away: apart from anything else, this is precisely what the opposition wants to happen. Coaches should never let their decision-makers hide behind the boot rather than exploit the available space. The easiest space for a No 10 to identify is that combat zone between the attacking and defensive line. It is also the most difficult space to manipulate. Mastery of the art of controlling this space, shutting it down for the opposition while preserving it and creating it anew for colleagues, is what separates the great from the good.
Remember this: a top-drawer No 10 is a lion, and while he may be armed by the ball-winning donkeys up front, he should never be led by them. Provided his own leadership skills are properly developed on the training field, forwards will always be happy to be the ones doing the following.
Be bold and follow Saracens' example in big spring games
The first weekend of 2011 was rich in unpredictability: Northampton lost at home, Bath won away, Sale bounced back from a 50-point hiding to beat a quality Saracens side and Leeds tasted Premiership victory for the first time this season. The established order was turned on its head, and as a result, there is now a lot more spice to affairs at both ends of the table.
It will be fascinating to monitor how the various teams balance things out as the campaign heads towards its climax. Who will fall prey to the temptation of playing conservatively in pursuit of victory, working on the logic that winning is the sole aim, sufficient unto itself? And who will pursue something a little more challenging on the process and performance front in the belief that it will bring richer rewards?
There will always be some, almost certainly a majority, who gather in the reins and take the safety-first option when the big games come along this spring. But I live in hope that a few, like with Saracens last year, will react positively to all the pressure by taking a bolder, more courageous road.
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