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

Tackling the issues
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The Independent Online

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.