Guess where I spent last Saturday night, watching the England-Wales drama unfold? In the ITV studios in Cardiff, in the company of my fellow pundits Mike Hall and Dafydd James – two Lions Test players from west of the River Severn. Given the magnitude of their country’s victory, I was struck by their constraint at the final whistle. Something tells me they let rip after my departure.
If the air was being punched the moment the door closed behind me… well, why not? Despite the long years of infighting in Welsh rugby since the dawning of professionalism, the emotional drive that energises their game at international level – the spirit known as hwyl – seems as strong as ever. Strange to relate, this may be down to the influence of two hard-nosed foreigners on the coaching team, Warren Gatland from New Zealand and Shaun Edwards from Lancashire. Whatever the truth of it, the Welsh showed remarkable heart and belief in the face of great adversity.
Much has been made of England’s decision-making at the back end of the game, and rightly so. Yet to the best of my knowledge, there has been no discussion of the problem at its root. From where does this apparent inability to deal with changing circumstances originate? It is a serious question: English rugby has been struggling in this area for far too long.
When the tide of battle started to turn on Saturday night; when the Welsh began to achieve some parity at the set-pieces; when this stronger platform allowed them to produce go-forward ball and generate momentum by winning a series of second rucks; when this gave the likes of George North, Taulupe Faletau and the world-class lock Alun Wyn Jones to exert real influence on proceedings… when all these things happened, what was the English reaction?
It seemed to me that the prevailing attitude was to “park the bus”, in Jose Mourinho parlance – to lay off the gas rather than step on it in an effort to extend their 10-point lead. By sitting back, mentally as well as physically, they allowed the balance of the contest to tilt. They put themselves under pressure, gave away penalties around the tackle, yielded territory and conceded points. And all this under the nose of a referee whose methodology was no secret to them.
Even when they were on the up, Wales were not threatening to set off on a try-scoring spree. Therefore, it was incumbent on England’s defenders to read the situation and decide quickly that by chasing lost causes at non-winnable rucks, they would run the risk of handing the opposition victory on a plate. They had to recognise the need to step back and reorganise; to trust their defensive system; to be conscious of the potential for making game-losing decisions and avoid them at all costs.
I have written more than once down the years of the importance of Game Understanding (an area so fundamental to winning rugby that it deserves the capital letters). Crucial to this are coaching sessions that put players in a problem-solving environment – where questioning is the means of communication, not telling. And I’m not just talking about dealing with the grown-ups here. This must be introduced at an early age.
Rugby intellect needs nurturing. As coaches, we should be asking players what happens when they are faced with an A-Z spread of potential decisions and they have to make the right call on the run. We have to challenge them to come up with solutions in the face of sudden momentum shifts. We must encourage what I call situational coaching because this is how leadership is developed.
Much of my consultancy work nowadays is focused on a pioneering Elite Coach Apprenticeship Scheme, administered by Premier League football. Its mission statement talks about producing “independent learners who are technically accomplished enough to win at the highest levels”. Bearing that in mind, I’m sure you can imagine my reaction when I received a text message earlier this week from one of my ECAS colleagues, whose 13-year-old son had just attended something called a Rugby Representative Development day, run by a Premiership club.
The first word from the coaches in charge was that at the end of the initial hour, 50 per cent of those attending would be cut in a “brutal” selection process. Some development statement, some environment! Furthermore, the cuts were to be based on a series of fitness tests (remember, we’re talking about 13-year-olds) and an ability to perform drills to a high level. No, I’m not joking. How I wish I were.
As I’ve been arguing for years, a mastery of drills is a complete irrelevance in determining how well a player understands the nuances and dynamics of games-playing. If a Premiership club is telling players at the start of their journeys that this stuff is more important than decision-making, should the events at Twickenham last Saturday night really have come as a surprise? Is it really a wonder that we struggle to produce what I call Tecup players – those capable of Thinking and Executing Correctly Under Pressure?
England’s next and potentially tournament-defining opponents are Australia and I took great interest in their performance against Uruguay on Sunday. It was a far less demanding contest for them, of course, but Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale, two black sheep mavericks of the union game, gave a master-class of improvisation, situation recognition and execution. This comes in large part from the exploratory approach to coaching, rather than the institutionalised one. In the face of the Wallabies, will England find the clarity of thought and precision of delivery they so badly need?
Brian Ashton is a former England head coach who guided the team to the World Cup final in 2007
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