Stephen Jones

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

Rugby World - - CONTENTS - stephen jones Rugby’s most out­spo­ken and in­flu­en­tial jouR­nal ist

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

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