The shores of Lake Windermere may be a million miles away, metaphorically speaking, from Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium and the other capitals of the international rugby world, but it is a beautiful place to spend some time, even when the Cumbrian weather renders the lake itself invisible.
I was there the other day, doing some presentation work for the local Schools Sports Partnership – an organisation that will shortly find itself under severe financial pressure, thanks to cuts introduced by someone in government who has no idea of its value – and found myself revelling in the spirit of freedom and independent thought.
Despite a good deal of early-season promise, much of the rugby we see nowadays has narrow-mindedness stamped all over it – not so much 360-degree vision as 360-degree tunnel vision – so I was happy to engage in a variety of fascinating discussions of a broader nature. Primarily, we talked about leadership and its importance to any concern, be it a sports team or a business, and generally agreed that the fewer followers and copiers an organisation has, the better its chances of hitting and maintaining a high level of performance. But this was tempered by the thought that sometimes judicious copying is extremely beneficial, provided the people doing the copying are equally judicious in their approach to adaptation and application.
This notion resonated with me when Shaun Edwards, the right-hand man to Warren Gatland in the Wales coaching set-up, made a few comments ahead of today's meeting with Australia in Cardiff. Asked for his views on how his team should meet the challenge in light of the Wallabies' victory over New Zealand in Hong Kong – and what a contest that was – he indicated that Wales would have a real crack at the opposition whenever they laid hands on the ball, just as the Australians had done against their great rivals from across the Tasman.
It is routinely said that the Welsh are as comfortable as any European team in playing an all-out attacking game with ball in hand. But does this mean they are truly capable of performing in the grand Tri-Nations manner? This is where adaptation and application come in. Any direct copying of Wallaby methods would amount to an admission that Wales consider themselves second-best, but knowing Shaun and Warren as I do, I'm sure they're thinking more along the lines of borrowing those parts of the Wallaby game that fit most easily into the existing Welsh method. As a means of making a good side better, it makes perfect sense.
There was another comment out of Wales that struck a different chord. Gwyn Jones, a national captain in his day and a very bright back-row forward, suggested that Australia would go into this game with a ready-made advantage, having spent more time playing under the latest International Rugby Board directives concerning the refereeing of the tackle area. Talk about getting your excuses in first! In my view, this kind of thing really does leave a team deep in the "second-best syndrome".
Irrespective of what happens over these four weeks of international activity, the rugby we saw in the Tri-Nations tournament, capped by that wonderful Bledisloe Cup encounter in Hong Kong, will live long in the memory, and should set the tone for the 2011 World Cup. This might be seen as a red rag to a bull in some quarters of the European game, but to my eyes, what we saw down south was the direct result of the Experimental Law Varations introduced by the IRB a little while back – those Satanic missives that frightened the northern hemisphere to death. Admittedly, there were major flaws, both in process and in content, but for those teams willing to enter into the spirit of them (that is to say, the Sanzar sides), the ELVs were highly stimulating. Indeed, they were central to the thought processes that enabled New Zealand and Australia to perform so dynamically against France and Wales this time last year.
I believe there is still too much short-termism, too much conservative thinking, up here in the north. When I attended a Six Nations conference in Rome and suggested it was the responsibility of the coaches, not the lawmakers, to move the game forward and develop it as a spectacle, I can't say my words fell on receptive ears. But I was wholly serious: to my mind, coaches are guilty of a massive cop-out in leaving rugby's improvement in the hands of the legislators.
It is far better, surely, for the leading teams to create environments where progress is driven by players free to approach their rugby with open minds. There are young players in this England side who are capable of pushing back the boundaries, and I'm looking forward to seeing the likes of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Ben Youngs, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Croft strutting their stuff and setting out their stalls. Will these individuals turn out to be the agents of change in the English game? We shall see.
Winning isn't all in the mind, but belief is half the battle
I have made only the odd passing reference to Exeter this season, but I must award them top marks for their outstanding Premiership victory at Saracens. Brendan Venter, the Sarries coach, was gracious enough to concede that a team armed with collective will and passionate belief can often defeat a group of more talented individuals. Will? Belief? These are intangibles, but a coach knows them when he encounters them.
In my last year of teaching at King's School in Bruton, Somerset, the senior team went through an entire season without kicking the ball. It sounds ridiculous even now, but they scored tries at the rate of seven a game. The idea had nothing to do with me: the players themselves came up with it, and I went along for the ride.
The point is a simple one: rugby is played as much in the mind as it is by the body.
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