Brian Ashton: It is the money men who are suffocating our game

Tackling the issues

There is a tremendous amount of noise being generated around rugby by people worried about the "state of the game", by which I take them to mean the recent shortage of dynamic, end-to-end action, together with a sharp drop in the number of tries seen in the Premiership – and, in many instances, at international level as well. I believe there are strong grounds for concern, but what really intrigues me is the deafening silence from certain stakeholders in the sport.

For one thing, we're not hearing too many complaints from the commercial side. The ball may be spending endless amounts of time in the air as straitjacketed teams attempt to lure each other into a mistake, but the grounds are still filling up and the money is still coming in. As for the players themselves... well, they're even quieter. If a senior professional has gone public in his criticism of the rugby being played this season, I must have missed it. To the best of my knowledge, no player has breathed a word on the issue of the moment.

What do we make of this strange state of affairs? After all, the players are the ones ultimately responsible for delivering what modern management types describe as "the product". Is it that they are not allowed an opinion? Or might it be – and this is the worst-case scenario – that they would rather not have one? If that is the situation, the environment of professional rugby is more robotic than I dared imagine. It leads me to wonder if freedom of expression in all its manifestations, physical as well as verbal, is being hammered out of players at an increasingly young age.

All this was brought into sharp focus just recently in a high-standard schools match. On one side of the half-way line was a team from a traditional seat of learning, where rugby, although taken seriously, was just one of the activities on the curriculum. Their opponents were from a school offering students a "rugby diploma" – one that had developed satellite links with a Premiership academy. They had all the professional accoutrements: lots of coaches, state-of-the-art equipment, the best nutrition, walkie-talkies, you name it. And they were beaten, quite comprehensively.

Are we dumbing down many of our most ambitious young players unnecessarily? It is something for those at the top end of the sport to ponder. All I know is that schoolboys are young people who go to school and play rugby while they're there, not rugby players who happen to go to school. If we don't understand that, then we're in trouble.

Up there in professional circles, it is very fashionable to point the finger at the International Rugby Board and accuse its members of failing to show the right kind of leadership. But all the IRB can do is tweak the laws. It cannot change attitudes or conjure a new, bolder and more dynamic rugby mindset out of thin air. If we follow the trail back to its source in search of those responsible for this current outbreak of dead-end rugby, the obvious candidates are the coaches.

As I have mentioned before in these pages, the notion that the coach runs and controls everything – game preparation, tactical switches during a match, the Monday morning debrief and everything in between – is anathema to me. In the not-so-far-off days of amateurism, there were times when work commitments prevented a coach from making it to a training session. What happened then? The players did the thinking and organising for themselves. This modern idea that the coach, and only the coach, calls the shots is not likely to lead to greater understanding and the wider acceptance of responsibility within a group.

But in this age of bottom-line accounting – of the association of playing success on the field with commercial success off it – I suspect some of the blame should be laid at the feet of the chief executives. Are their demands and expectations creating an atmosphere of fear and inhibition among the coaches and players? If so, there are no prizes for guessing what impact this has on the "product".

Maybe the CEO class should start attending the odd coaching seminar as a means of learning what this sport is, or should be, about. If the penny drops with them, those growing numbers who flock to our rugby grounds on a weekly basis might start getting more for their money than they're getting now.

Blue Bulls prove the laws can work

By the way, it is in fact possible for two teams to produce a game of rugby worthy of the name under current laws. Anyone who watched the recent final of the Currie Cup, the premier domestic competition in South Africa, will agree with me.

The Blue Bulls and the Free State Cheetahs treated the Pretoria crowd to six tries and 60 points while playing under precisely the same rules at the tackle area as those in force up here in the northern hemisphere – rules that some coaches claim are making attacking rugby an impossibility. Don't get me wrong: I don't automatically equate masses of points and torrents of tries with good rugby. I believe high value should be placed on a try; indeed, I've seen captivating games in which no try was scored, let alone half a dozen of them.

But every now and again, particularly when professional rugby men are protesting about the iniquities of the law book, it is good to be shown the other side of the argument. Where there's a will, there's a way to play the kind of rugby everyone claims they want to play.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Floyd Mayweather will relinquish his five world titles after beating Manny Pacquiao
boxing
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
News
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living