Peter Bills: England set-up is blinkered

Talking Rugby: The England coaching set-up lacks experience and a fresh perspective, but there is one man who could change that - and possibly England's fortunes
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The Independent Online

Whatever England rugby fans’ personal views on the state of the national team, and it is clear that Martin Johnson’s honeymoon period is over, it seems to me that one significant flaw exists in the make-up of the coaching staff.

The presence of three key personnel created in the image of a single club, risks an approach that is too blinkered in the modern game.

Martin Johnson, the overall supremo, forwards coach John Wells and scrummage coach Graham Rowntree all learned the game at Leicester. They are men hardened and forged by an environment where the forward unit was regarded as paramount, where years of physical supremacy over most sides was sufficient to ensure victory.

Alas, the international stage requires an altogether broader perspective than one still mired chiefly in the forward philosophy. Yet the very fact that three of England’s four management and coaching officers originate from a Leicester background surely risks an approach that has been overtaken in the modern game, especially with the likely advent of some if not all of the ELVs.

It is true that Brian Smith offers a different philosophy. Smith, the Australian, was a half-back of considerable ingenuity and he brought such an approach to his work at London Irish. It is no surprise that a player like Delon Armitage and, before him, Shane Geraghty were introduced to the international stage with such a flourish, when they were given their chance. Smith’s belief in positiveness and the value of an attacking mindset have been crucial at the embryonic stages of both players’ careers.

Yet it seems to me that this England coaching structure still lacks one key individual. Where is the shrewd, wily, experienced observer, the guy who has been a coach on the international stage for some years and understands intrinsically both the game and the coaching business from head to toe? Palpably, England lacks such a figure.

Martin Johnson was a player of the highest order; indeed, all England’s coaches were internationals, with the exception of Wells. But none of them have been observers or coaches of international teams for years, men who would be long in the tooth in the affairs of the game on the premier stage and who would bring a worldly experience so valuable in terms of offering a fresh perspective.

It is significant that that when former Springbok coach Jake White was casting around for such a figure a year before the 2007 Rugby World Cup, he chose Eddie Jones, who had coached Australia to the 2003 World Cup final. Jones understood the very individualistic demands of international rugby; he’d been there, seen it and done it for several years. What he offered the Springboks – and the proof of the pudding was in the eating, for South Africa won the 2007 world crown with him on board – was another, quite different voice, crafted from a completely different background compared to that of the South African coaches. This brought variety and new, challenging views to the debate behind the Springboks’ planning for the World Cup.

England has no-one of that expertise or experience in their camp. Their coaching make-up is too similar, too formulaic; too heavily orientated from a single source.

There is a man in world rugby who would solve this weakness, this flaw in England’s make-up. Right now, he spends more time on his farm, worrying about the feed for his cattle and when the next rains will come. But deep down, Bob Dwyer remains and always has been a man in love with rugby football. He is also, by the way, one of the most experienced, shrewdest and most astute observers and analysts of the game you will find anywhere in the world.

Dwyer understands the game, players, coaches, trends, et al. He has seen it all, and would bring England a lifetime of experience and knowledge. Still today, he watches and analyses game closely; his views are as valuable in the present time as they were 26 years ago when he led a bunch of Australian kids on a tour to New Zealand and stunned the locals with the dash, invention and creativity they brought to the game. Or in 1991 when he coached Australia to their first World Cup crown.

No-one knows Test rugby better than Bob Dwyer. His deep knowledge, utilised as a consultant with occasional visits to the UK from his Australian home, would enormously strengthen and enhance the England coaching structure.

Will England do it? Do they have the money? Are they prepared to think out of the box sufficiently to embrace this kind of innovative idea and accept they could improve their structure by the presence of such a coaching master?

All I’ll say is, don’t hold your breath. But if England were really professional and really serious about making progress, they would be on the phone to Sydney right now………….