Total rugby in need of total rethink

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The Independent Online
A problem facing any representative side is that of amalgamating players from different clubs into a team with a common purpose. When that common purpose encompasses a game plan that is completely alien to some, and only partially understood by others, then the dilemma becomes further exacerbated. Therein, I believe, lies the obstacle facing England in their attempt at post-World Cup transition to achieve the goal of "total rugby".

England were relatively successful in their game against France by postponing this transition and reverting to type. Going back to basics was how Jack Rowell put it, and it almost came off. England showed the kind of collective spirit and desire missing in their pre-Christmas exploits. The clear reason for that is that, by and large, this "basic" rugby is the kind of rugby being played week in, week out by our club sides. We were back in our comfort zone and it showed.

However, though this style of rugby has allowed us to win a Grand Slam or two, it has never allowed us to dominate the way we would have liked. Furthermore, once we reach the world stage, though capable of epic one-off triumphs, the consistency is never there. Since our goal should be that of not just European, but world domination and consistency, we recognised the need to evolve our game into total rugby.

But where must that evolution come from? The team are trying to achieve this from the top down, with less than successful results. The answer, quite obviously, lies at club level and lower.

By lower I mean at school and colts level. Total rugby can only be achieved through an eradication of errors which comes from a level of concentration, allied with basic skills, well beyond the realms of most players in England, right up to and even including the national squad.

In places like New Zealand and South Africa the basics of passing, catching, tackling, ball retention, support etc are drummed into them from an early age. This has allowed a multitude of All Black sides to dominate the world scene consistently and, more recently, with a style best exemplifying the tenet of total rugby.

In Newcastle the development of a centre of sporting excellence will promote the instruction of these basics through the forum of a rugby academy. At Leicester youngsters are encouraged to attend similar workshops. In these days of neglect for sport in our youngsters it is up to the clubs to tap talent at younger and younger age-groups and attempt to instil the basics.

It is an argument spanning all sports that playing is not enough. It should be secondary to practice and instruction. I can see the difficulties incumbent in that - Lord knows I hate to practice - but is that not largely because the teacher isn't doing his job. Instead, young players are subjected to highly competitive rugby from an early age. The "fear of failure" combined with the lack of instruction means that the kids are losing their innate sense of verve and flair from an early age.

At the upper end of the scale, the ability to play total rugby is lying latent in England. It requires the clubs to put together the right preparation so that the players feel comfortable enough to attempt it on a Saturday. Only then, when players' and coaches' attitudes have changed at club level, can we expect to see these startling changes at international level.

When a player is confident that he can go for a break or counter-attack from a kick, knowing that his ball retention is good enough, that support is with him and continuity will be maintained, only then will we be heading in the right direction. Until then, clubs and England will keep going back to basics.

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