Power of the coach ought to be diminished

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The Independent Online

In theatre or opera, they are called directors or producers; in rugby, coaches or, sometimes, managers. In the performing arts, the predominance of these people has led critics to ask not so much whether the play was well acted or the opera well sung as, rather, whether so-and-so's slant on the production was interesting, exciting, preposterous or merely dull.

While the domination of the director or producer has been going on since, I suppose, around 1950, to the irritation and often the anger of actors and singers, the rise of the rugby coach is of more recent origin. The players are now complaining as loudly as would actors or singers.

My sympathies are largely on their side. It is they, after all, who have to do the work. And yet the Sunday and Monday papers were as full of the thoughts of Clive Woodward the England coach, and of Graham Henry, his equivalent with Wales, as they were of the matches which these coaches had watched from the stands or the reserved places at Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium.

This concentration on the coach is understandable. I do not blame my colleagues in the least. The coaches pick the teams. They dictate the tactics – or try to do so. They have their favourites (Henry's loyalty to David Young was remarkable) and they also have those they cast into outer darkness, as Richard Cockerill was consigned by Woodward to the great sin-bin in the sky from which no man ever returns to the pitch.

They possess, I think, altogether too much power particularly over international teams. There is an analogy not only with operatic and theatrical directors or producers but also with professional chefs. There is no such thing as a democratic kitchen. If the chef wants the carrots to be sliced in a particular way, that is the way they have to be sliced, irrespective of what the majority opinion may be.

This is precisely where the analogy breaks down. Rugby players are not carrots, though with some of them these days you might be forgiven for failing to spot the difference. Most of them, however, remain thoughtful young men with views of their own about the way their team ought to be playing the game. I believe that, in the words of the 18th Century resolution attacking George III, the power of the coach has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. But I see no realistic prospect that this will happen in the immediate or even the medium-term future.

So it is that today we have set up before us the spectacle of two coaches: Woodward up, Henry down; one triumphant, even triumphalist, the other reduced to saying – or to making the excuse – that his team are not really very good.

I am sometimes accused by readers of being less than generous to the England side. Well, let me say that the performance of the pack in the first half against Australia was as accomplished as any piece of forward play I have seen in the last decade. For this I give much of the credit to Graham Rowntree (who ought to have been restored to the England team some time ago), Dorian West and Phil Vickery. None of these was in the side that played Ireland in Dublin, though West came on as a substitute, and Vickery was injured. I give the praise to them rather than to Woodward for picking them.

Admittedly, it took more imagination to play Jason Robinson at full-back even though he now plays in that position for Sale, as Woodward lost no time in pointing out after the match. The job of full-back has changed even since the enterprising days of Serge Blanco, Andy Irvine and J P R Williams. In their era, Gerald Davies was a natural footballer as well as a great wing. As a young man he fought a successful battle with his original club, Llanelli, to be a wing rather than a centre. But no one, I think, ever suggested he should switch to full-back.

Wales still possess exciting wings, even though they may not be in Davies's class: Mark Jones and Shane Williams, who are both injured, and Anthony Sullivan, the league import who replaced Williams in Saturday's dismal encounter, though I was genuinely pleased to see that the Argentina players were so happy. At least someone was.

The Wales pack had five players – Darren Morris, Robin McBryde, Young, Colin Charvis, and Scott Quinnell – who had toured Australia with Henry's Lions. Of these two, Young and Quinnell, were regulars in the Test side. Yet only Quinnell put up any sort of show at Cardiff.

Can Henry really be blamed for the under-performance of the rest? He certainly cannot be blamed for selecting Iestyn Harris at outside-half rather than at No 12 or even No 13, as some good judges have been suggesting. Even so it was Harris, not Henry, who had two kicks charged down, from one of which Argentina scored, and who made an aimless punt which resulted in another try. Just as I am not prepared to make heroes out of coaches, so I am not willing to cast them as villains either.

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