David Flatman: No substitute for a coach with courage of his convictions

From the Front Row: The coach must always retain the right to read the game as he sees it

David Flatman
Sunday 03 March 2013 01:00

As a player, whenever I was named on the bench instead of in the starting line-up I took it as an insult. Of course, there were times when injuries dictated that a full game might be too much for the body, but otherwise I was offended. I rarely argued, as the decision had clearly already been made, and I never, ever mentioned the other player in my position. To run him down, I felt, would have said a lot more about me as a bloke than about him as a player.

What I did do was barter. It was not intentional but, looking back, that is exactly what I did. I attempted to mitigate my disappointment and anger by forcing the coach to guarantee me a certain amount of game time. This often worked, actually, and the coach would, possibly because it was genuinely a tight call between me and the other chap and possibly to placate an unhappy camper, agree to my demands.

A concession such as this from a coach can, for him, be a throwaway comment delivered simply to end an uncomfortable conversation, but to the player it is gospel.

I was not the only one who did this – I expect most did, and still do – but the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it becomes. It was absurd of me to demand 20 or 30 minutes simply because I had not been selected to start a match. The possibility of the chosen one playing a blinder never figured in my mind. All I knew was that I was not happy and I wanted to be on that field for as long as possible. Without excusing anything, I think it's natural behaviour. And I feel that when these conversations come, coaches have to be stronger.

We have no idea whether the kamikaze substitutions made by Philippe Saint-André at Twickenham last week were arranged during the previous week, but it felt as though one or two of them must have been. To take Thomas Domingo off the field – never mind the others – was crazy.

I also saw Nick Wood and the hugely underrated Darren Dawidiuk substituted as Gloucester took on Wasps a few weeks ago. The pair had been terrorising Wasps' tighthead prop Phil Swainston for an hour, they both looked fresh enough to continue, but they were tugged with a while still to play. Cue a rock-steady Wasps scrum under the Gloucester posts and a disruption-free pick-up for Billy Vunipola, from which he sauntered over for a crucial late try. Why not leave them on?

All coaches will make errors – just like the players they train – but these personnel changes do often appear to happen automatically. Admittedly I loved the notion of playing 60 minutes or so before making way for a young whippersnapper full of energy. However, most of the coaches under whom I worked reserved the right to keep the bench man on the bench and let the starter carry on should the situation require it.

For me, this is all about the human dynamic between player and coach; it truly is a difficult balance. As a player, you want to feel at ease around your boss, confident that you can be yourself and say what you really feel. People rarely flourish in any environment when ill at ease.

But as a coach, while there absolutely needs to be a human bond that should, ideally, lead to players feeling desperate not to let you down, there also has to be a degree of separation. The coach can be as sociable as he likes – sharing beers and laughs with his charges – but he must also be able to stand down any player in the room, whether they went clubbing together last night or not. This is genuinely tough, and it takes a big person to master it.

Ultimately there has to be one rule of coaching that never dilutes, no matter how close friendships become: the coach must always retain the right to read the game as he sees it and implement his tactical adjustments and personnel changes as and when he wants to. To tell your decision-makers to read the game as it moves but to sacrifice your right to do the same by promising someone an appearance at a certain point does not seem logical.

Sometimes logic has to rule over friendship, even if it would have driven me barmy. Who would be a coach? Whacking into scrum after scrum seems simple by comparison.

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