Guess writer Jez Denton gives a few opinions on coaching and the international set up
Whilst watching the Aviva Premiership highlights last night Mark Durden-Smith asked David Flatman ‘why, seeing as the form he’s shown over the last three to four seasons, isn’t Alex Goode even in the England squad, let alone the starting fifteen for the Autumn Internationals.’ Flatman, being just about the best summariser on rugby around at the moment, gave an illuminating answer, being that Eddie Jones, with a 10/12 axis of Ford and Farrell, doesn’t need another creative player at 15 and instead requires a defensive rock there that allows the creative players the space into which to do what they do best. And whilst I understand this as a principle, and putting aside my opinion that, based on current form, Brown isn’t even the best defensive 15 around, it’s a philosophy that concerns and worries me. And is, for me, at the heart of why the All Blacks are so dominant at the moment in world rugby, and is something that rugby needs to address, and indeed some other sports could do with addressing too.
When I first started playing rugby I was coached to a very simple philosophy and it is one I took into my youth coaching when I made that step. And it was a very easy philosophy to start. Quite simply, when presented with a new group of players, I’d ask a very simple question; that being ‘what is the best form of defence?’ And each player would answer by talking about the latest buzz word; ‘blitz defence’ , ‘rush’, ‘two up tackles’, ‘low and high’ until eventually one of the players would say ‘ attack.’ And that quite simply is that; put in its most simple form, and as my early coach would say, the game plan is to win the toss, elect to field the kick off, keep the ball alive, get over the try line, score 5 points minimum and repeat. And that’s what the vast majority of our training involved, how to keep the ball alive, moving quickly and into space. And even then our defensive drills were all about winning the turnover and attacking a broken field in front of us.
Going back to the Premiership highlights an interview with Jim Mallinder was played which highlighted to me the problems many of the coaches in the Premiership have. Mallinder talked about why Northampton lost in terms of ‘they didn’t compete’, ‘they didn’t play to the defensive game plan’. And don’t forget Saints were at home against a team, Wasps, who’d had a poor start to the season, but whom went into that game looking to play high tempo, space exploiting, quick (and entertaining) rugby. And if you look at Wasps, and indeed my team Saracens, who are often unfairly characterised as a dour defence first team, look at how they take the field. Both teams enter the field with their first priority being how do we cause the opposition problems and not how do we deal with the problems we are being caused. And this is, for me, is the only way to develop from being a good and competitive side to being a great side.
It has always been the same. The greatest teams are the ones who concentrate on what they do best, what problems they are going to cause, how they are going to exploit space, support play and ultimately score more tries and points than the opposition. Did the Welsh team of the 70’s with Edwards, Bennett, Davies, Williams et al worry about their defensive patterns or did they say let’s play. The same for the French teams of Blanco, Cambiero and Sella. And in the modern days the current All Black team who walk onto the field each test match in the pretty certain knowledge that they have the game to stop the opposition playing by starving them of ball and keeping the score board ticking.
And as I said in my introduction the same goes in other team sports; the great West Indies and Australian cricket teams went into each game with the knowledge that if they batted they’d score a minimum 400 runs, and if they bowled their bowlers would be given attacking fields that guaranteed wickets. And in football, the successful teams are those that go out and play; look at what Germany did to Brazil at the last world cup for instance. Indeed, in football this week we have seen perhaps the most obvious example of this in my football team, West Ham, and the two games they played. Versus Tottenham, 2-0 down at half time, they came out and attacked and scored three goals. They got into a rhythm and caused problems everywhere. And then on Saturday, the exact opposite happened, they got a lead in the first half and in the second half tried to defend it and against a poor team, Crystal Palace, ended up holding on for a draw. Imagine how Manchester City would have approached that second half; without doubt they’d have won 4 or 5 or maybe more nil.
In conclusion, and going back to my original point about who England should play at 15 in the autumn internationals, I would like to see Eddie Jones pick a player for the reason what will he do to cause the opposition, and in particular New Zealand, problems; not what he can do to stop the opposition. It will be at that point that England will become true challengers to the dominance of the All Blacks; or it will be the point when we see how truly great the All Blacks are.