Brian Ashton: I applaud Farrell's decision... now they should go for Smith
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 14 April 2012
It takes a brave man – certainly a mature one – to turn down the chance of coaching England with a home World Cup on the distant horizon. As I know Andy Farrell to be both brave and mature, I cannot say I'm completely surprised by his decision to stay with Saracens for the foreseeable future. In fact, I think that he's probably made a wise choice. Andy will be missed in the England camp, for his contribution throughout the Six Nations was extremely positive, but I understand his reasons for passing up the opportunity to continue his work with the national team.
He must have been sorely tempted to throw in his lot with Twickenham. What coach wouldn't be tempted? But as Andy keeps saying himself, he is still new to the trade. At Saracens, he is expanding his knowledge and developing his skills in a vibrant learning environment, and this, I am sure, was the clinching factor.
I have written before about his authority, his presence and his ability as a motivator. How accomplished will he be when fully armed with technical knowledge in, say, four or five years' time? He could, and should, be outstanding.
In coaching, as in many other walks of life, there is a danger of flying too high, too soon. The crash-and-burn syndrome is very real. I can imagine Andy wondering if he really wanted to reach a pinnacle at 40 and then find himself thinking: "Is that it?"
He is happy at Saracens – no small thing when you consider how many people are unhappy in their jobs – and by staying put and building on the foundations which he has laid over the last two and a half years, he can prepare himself properly for the challenges ahead. Believe me, there will be many of them.
What should England do now? Going by what Stuart Lancaster said – before and after his appointment as head coach – they will surely keep things tight in terms of numbers. Stuart was happy to be part of a three-man team during the Six Nations – small is beautiful in this regard, because it minimises the risk of mixed messages – so I imagine he will stay with a similar format, perhaps bringing in a specialist kicking coach as and when necessary.
There has been a fair bit of confusion over the precise nature of Andy's role with England, and therefore the type of coach required now he has made his call. As far as I understand it, he concentrated largely on defence. He put forward some ideas on the attacking game, and it goes without saying that he was a key figure on the motivational side of things, but defence was the main focus.
In light of this, I see Wayne Smith, the New Zealander who helped coach the All Blacks to the world title last autumn, as a very strong candidate – always assuming he is available contractually and wants to relocate to the northern hemisphere. I know Wayne well, I'm familiar with his coaching philosophy and consider him one of the very best in the sport. He is very much a players' coach (not a description that applies to everyone) and, equally importantly, he has rich experience in all areas.
The successful New Zealand coaching team of Wayne, Graham Henry and Steve Hansen was based on a multi-discipline approach. A couple of years back, when Graham decided to shake things up by getting everyone to take on each other's responsibilities, I wrote a column in support of the move. I've never been comfortable with exclusive specialisation – it smacks of box-ticking. Far better to have coaches who are equipped to make a contribution in all areas.
Wayne is renowned as an attack coach, but he knows a hell of a lot about everything else. You don't reach the top in a rugby environment like New Zealand with big holes in your CV.
Demise of English clubs makes for compulsive viewing
I have to admit to leading a sedentary – not to say sad – existence over the Easter holiday. The absence of National League One business with Fylde gave me an opportunity to watch the four Heineken Cup knock-out games, preceded by a tasty, locally-produced hors d'oeuvre in the form of the St Helens-Wigan Super League match on Good Friday. Too much television is not to be recommended, but for the rugby follower it was compulsive viewing, with the good, the bad and the not-so intelligent approaches to the game all on show.
There was much to ponder: alongside the clear reaffirmation of the basic principles of winning rugby, there was plenty of evidence that when teams are on the back foot in the heat of battle, the automatic recourse to traditional thinking and the coaching-manual approach does not always stack up. No doubt this will become even more apparent as the tournament heads into its semi-final stage later this month – this time, much to the disappointment of English followers and the embarrassment of our domestic club movement.
The Aviva Premiership wheeled out Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all to proffer excuses for the English demise. For what it's worth, I'd single out a couple of shortcomings – the inability to adapt to circumstances and an alarming lack of flexibility in thought and deed – as principal reasons for our premature departure from European competitions.
Much to my regret, the role of the player wearing the No 12 shirt as joint conductor of the attacking orchestra has been almost completely marginalised in this part of the world. I was, therefore, most interested in the contributions of the various game-shapers at half-back. Let us start with Toulouse, for so long the consummate artists of the game in Europe. They fielded an extra back-row forward in the shape of the Australian scrum-half Luke Burgess, pairing him with the kick-driven Lionel Beauxis at No 10. And they paid the price.
Unable to secure parity, let alone establish superiority, against an Edinburgh side who played with a frightening tenacity and physicality up front, the situation cried out for a little flair from the Toulouse halves yet only on occasions did they stir themselves, looking far from comfortable as they did so. When, with Edinburgh down to 13 men, Beauxis received some quality line-out ball and immediately kicked it away so badly that it went directly back into touch, I almost switched off the television. This? From Toulouse? Dark moments indeed, for our game as a whole.
In contrast, Greig Laidlaw managed the Edinburgh game far more authoritatively than he managed Scotland during the Six Nations, his reading of situations and his instinctive knowledge of when to step in and out of the action allowing the marauding home forwards to stay in the faces of opponents who were, on paper, rather more illustrious.
Another international No 10, Jonathan Sexton of Ireland, helped orchestrate an outstanding 40 minutes of attacking rugby as Leinster settled their contest with an injury-hit Cardiff Blues in double-quick time. I have expressed my admiration for Sexton's abilities in previous columns, but it was intriguing on this occasion to see how much more comfortable he looked in the Dubliners' jersey than he has of late in the green shirt of his country. He was helped by the return from long-term injury of the inspirational Brian O'Driscoll, who was never far away from him in midfield. Leinster are genuine contenders once again.
"How did Ulster beat us?" That must have been the question on the lips of all Munster supporters at the end of an enthralling contest at Thomond Park. Certainly, the men from the north delivered a two-fingered salute to the maxim that matches are won on the basis of territory and possession. Twice during this ferocious game, a statistics panel flashed up on the screen to inform us that in separate 10-minute periods, Munster had 96 per cent of possession!
But if Munster had virtually all the ball, they did not have Ruan Pienaar. One of Ulster's influential South African contingent, he made the most of possession that came his way. Pienaar did what he felt was required rather than play the rugby he had been asked to play. What was I saying about players adapting to situations? And to cap it all, his goalkicking contribution was not bad, either. On that last point, we can say the same for the Clermont Auvergne outside-half Brock James, who was off the bench and on the field after just three minutes and, a dozen or so minutes later, had kicked three penalties that pretty much ended the challenge of Saracens for another year. Alongside him was Mor-gan Parra, an intuitive French No 9 who ensured that the English club's back division had nowhere to go.
All English followers were left praying for a rabbit out of the hat to tip the balance towards Saracens, but there was never the slightest sign of such an illusion. Saracens felt they were ready to move up a level from Premiership rugby. Clermont, a real powerhouse, informed them otherwise.
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