Brian Ashton: What Barbarians and 'Blackadder' can teach top coaches
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 11 December 2010
How good it was to see the Barbarians back at Twickenham last weekend, recording another victory over a top-tier international side – by my reckoning, their win over the Springboks made it four such successes in three years – in the fashion those of us who value the intelligence of their rugby have long been accustomed to.
I have to say I was disappointed at the absence of English talent in the Baa-Baas line-up, but then, it is hardly the first time home-grown Premiership players have been denied the opportunity to spend an enjoyable, instructive week in the company of some of the top performers in the world game.
Once again, the invitation side defied considerable odds and flew in the face of modern-day theories of big-game preparation by producing a match-winning display on the back of a brief run-around on a snow-covered training field and a session in a school sports hall. There was a bit more to it than that, but only the people involved know precisely what went on behind closed doors.
We were, however, given an indication of the thought processes by Matt Giteau, the Australian midfield player who led the team against the South Africans. He said the experience of playing Barbarians rugby reminded him of the reasons he took a serious interest in the sport in the first place, adding that the sense of freedom, the chance to combine instinct and hard-won knowledge in a fresh and creative way, made a welcome change from the regimented environment of team meetings and micro-managed build-ups that are so common in the professional game. This kind of talk raises the issue of how a different sort of environment – one that encourages creativity without losing sight of the importance of discipline and responsibility – can best be developed and, more challenging still, moves us into the difficult area of the relationship between the science of coaching and the art of coaching.
The Barbarians do a lot of things right when it comes to bringing the best out of players, and this opinion was reinforced by a couple of last week's television programmes.
The first was a recording of the 2004 "Strat Pack" concert, in which some of the great rock guitarists – Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Brian May of Queen, among others – were drawn together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Fender Stratocaster. The musicians had next to no preparation time, yet they contrived to put on a terrific live performance highlighting world-class technique and, most importantly of all, their intuitive ability to adjust and react to those around them, often in a split second.
Second up was a documentary devoted to the celebrated comedy show Blackadder, with contributions from the people most closely involved with the project: Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry and Tony Robinson. It was Elton who explained how this extraordinarily creative group of individuals pooled their ideas – how each of them was encouraged to give his own take on how each half-hour episode should unfold. There were no restrictions on opinion, no rules as to who could say what to whom. As an exercise in collective activity, there was a kind of perfection about it.
It struck me forcibly that there were common denominators between all three ventures: the Baa-Baas, the concert and the TV show. The environments were open, relaxed and interactive, featuring knowledgeable and accomplished people who understood the importance of technical excellence as a foundation stone of high-level performance and the value of adaptability.
Peer-group pressure is vital in ensuring that when the important moments arrive, all involved are the best they can be. There can be no place for boundaries externally imposed by a coach; rather, the coach should encourage his players to look beyond the horizon. Eddie Izzard, the comedian, is not, as far as I know, much of a rugby nut, but he hit the nail on the head when he said: "Take the lid off the box of life, climb out, and explore the brave new world out there."
I fear RFU diktat could strangle talent
I see the Rugby Football Union has reaffirmed that, after next year's World Cup in New Zealand, those players serious about wearing the white shirt at representative level will have to be playing in England. This cannot be legally enforced, as I understand it, but the message could not be clearer.
I understand the governing body's desire to exert as much control as possible over leading players in an effort to guarantee access to them, but I hope it is not shooting itself in the foot. I'm a firm believer that a young player in his formative years needs to expose himself to an enriching, challenging, games-based environment if he is to broaden his rugby knowledge. With the best will in the world, I can't say such environments are always available in the English Premiership.
It may be that the RFU diktat proves to be a catalyst, leading to changes for the better in our domestic game. If so, all well and good. But equally, the opposite may turn out to be the case. We need a commonsense, balanced solution if our brightest young players are not to lose some of the best of themselves without even knowing it was there in the first place.
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