Are pre- game exchanges between coaches overshadowing the rugby itself? Stephen Jones says it’s time for the players to reclaim the sport and those on the sidelines to focus on actions rather than words
Why did almost everyone, including those who never saw themselves as fans of boxing, love the galactic battle between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko? It was a fight that stirred the senses, but was there something in the preamble and aftermath that was more appealing? For me, the spirit of the fight and the respect that the two combatants showed each other was rather charming. These days, boxers trying to sell a bout come over as preposterous, preening and even pantomime in their verbal villainy. It is meant to sell tickets but when David Haye and Tony Bellew finally came to fight night after months of abusing each other, a large proportion of the population may well have lost interest.
So do we really need the camps to bellow at each other before rugby Internationals? More and more, this pre-game sideshow appears to be becoming as big as the match itself, which is ludicrous. Some people are already looking forward to Hansen v Gatland in June and July (aka All Blacks v Lions). Last autumn we had Cheika v Jones, until such time as a rugby match broke out in the aftermath.
Coaches have become monstrous. It is time to declare an interest because it is very much in the interest of the media to report on the pre-match blathering. If one coach opens up with some kind of blast then we can get any number of stories – next day there will be the counter-blast and the day after that the counter to the counter, and so on.
We in the media can take our fair share of the blame for that, and a certain amount of winding up, and I fully accept that it can leave other people cold. But to blame the media is ridiculous because all the top coaches in the game are highly intelligent and
A WORD OF WA RNIN G: DO WE RE ALLY WANT TO BE IN SUCH THRA LL TO RUGBY ’ S COACHES?
when they sit in front of microphones not only do they know exactly what they are doing, they have pre-planned exactly what they are going to say.
However, it has gone too far. Coaches are dominating the sport at the top level and that dominance permeates down. Only a few months ago, I asked a senior member of World Rugby if there was any chance that they would cut the number of replacements allowed in rugby, restoring the great old tradition that matches are won in the final quarter when the superior team has exhausted the opposition.
My man loved the idea and it has widespread support. “But the coaches would never stand for it,” he said. He meant the top international coaches, who are not heavily represented on the law-making panels but whose influence is massive nonetheless. And as usual, it seems that rugby is in danger of following in the footsteps of football, sometimes slowly but often rather too rapidly for comfort. Earlier this season the first Manchester football derby was billed as Pep v Jose, ignoring the multimillion-pounds-worth of talent on the field in each squad. Messrs Guardiola and Mourinho may as well have had a darts match between themselves to sort out the result, such was the almost perverted concentration on them before the game.
The latest lunacy is for some football managers to race up and down like lunatics if their team scores a goal. Antonio Conte, of Chelsea, acts like a madman, rushing round, diving here and there, congratulating complete strangers and losing any shred of dignity. You can listen to him speaking in measured tones post-match, but you cannot get out of your head the sprinting up and down like a peripatetic infant.
A word of warning, therefore: do we really want to be in such thrall to the coaches in rugby? Do we really want to big them up as much as we do? And do we all really want to hang on their every word?
Perhaps the Joshua v Klitschko fight will teach us lessons in rugby and other sports. There is a virtue in dignity. Steve Hansen may well believe that it is his mission to educate the rest of the rugby world on their deficiencies, and there may be some in the northern hemisphere who warmly welcome his advice, while there are others – myself included – who really wish he wouldn’t bother. Frankly, his coaching record is so good that he should revel in that, rather than offer advice to areas of the game where he was not successful.
Warren Gatland may be a former front-row forward but he has far too many marbles for most people, he is by a considerable distance a more clever man and bigger tactical force than people think. He has been known to start the odd bout of verbal fisticuffs himself, but I hope that on the Lions tour he just lets Hansen get on with it and maybe talk himself into a sore throat.
While it may fuel the media and interest those who adore the verbal jousting, it is also important to ask whether it ever makes any difference.
G at land has a better know ledGe of how modern lions tours operate than anyone
I have covered a few Internationals in my time, probably approaching 400 – frightening, I know. I have listened to quite a few verbal outbursts live, via transcript or on TV. I can say for sure that, one game apart, I have never come across a Test that
I felt was affected in any significant way by what anyone said before the match.
The exception was that 1980 England v Wales game at Twickenham in which Paul Ringer was sent off. That game was poisoned before it began and it did affect the outcome. Off hand, I can think of no others. So much wasted breath.
Leaving aside their growing profile, what about the effect of their coaching? Are they magicians? Say another leading coach had been in charge of New Zealand over the past few years, would they have got the same results out of the All Blacks? It would be very unfair on Hansen to claim that they would, because he has clearly done a marvellous job. Yet you suspect that one or two others might have managed it just as well.
And Gatland? He has his critics and some people do not believe that he should be coaching this year’s Lions in New Zealand. Rubbish. First, he has a better knowledge of how modern Lions tours operate than any man living, taking over from Sir Ian McGeechan, who ruled the roost for so long. Gatland knows the heartbeat, the rhythm, the brutality, the near-impossibility and all the other imperatives of a Lions tour and there is no one remotely in that same sphere when it comes to the great campaigns Down Under.
What about a coach like Joe Schmidt? Given the players at Ireland’s disposal, would they have beaten New Zealand under another leading coach? No. At any time in the development of a national squad, there is a horse for a course. The level of organisation and discipline that Schmidt brought to Ireland on that famous day in Chicago could not have been beaten or even rivalled by anyone else.
And so the truth is elusive. Some coaches become famous on the back of the efforts of their players, some flit in and make no noticeable difference to a team but are given praise for the good days. Other coaches can be quite magnificent but simply do not have the raw materials. There are times when they all clearly love the spotlight, and also times when they wish that they had never taken to the platform on a media day or in front of the baleful camera.
It has all become too big. Hopefully, there will be a phase in the game in which the players reclaim the sport. It now sounds incredibly quaint but there was a time, and I am being serious, when the true-blue amateurs who ran the game saw coaching as tantamount to professionalism.
So when the first coaches came into the game, the authorities demanded that they be called “adviser to the captain”. Bonkers, of course, but in those days the team was everything, and the bloke who came along to give advice was deemed as superfluous. Nonsense days but, in some ways, happy days.
However, processes in sport are inexorable. You sense that the coaches will have centre stage in New Zealand over the coming weeks, and will retain it through to the next World Cup in Japan and beyond. A shame, however clever and wise and influential they may be. Perhaps the tide will turn.
Certainly, we all preferred listening to the gallant Klitschko and the triumphant Joshua, rather than the brawling drivel of Haye and Bellew. Let’s not make Haye in rugby, it is already noisy enough.
War of words Eddie Jones and Michael Cheika dominated headlines before last December’s England-Australia Test
Wise man Warren Gatland at lions training in 2013
Fired up Antonio Conte
Ring true The Anthony Joshua-Wladimir Klitschko fight attracted a new audience to boxing