northern exposure


Cribbage has taken a back seat. Dart-boards are gathering dust. Shove-ha’penny? Dominoes? For goodness sake, this is no time for idle frivolities. Rugby in this hemisphere is in crisis and there isn’t a tap-room in any town in England that isn’t vigorously debating the differentials ‘twixt north and south: all of which would be rather refreshing were the discussion not mired in quite so much cliché.

Firstly, there are the Environmentalists who’ll tell you it’s all about the firmer pitches and the weather. It’s a climate thing, you see. Stands to reason. Then there’s the Progressives who like to remind everyone that ‘down there’ they coach their kids to enjoy the game and play skills-orientated rugby whereas we stick ours in the gym when they’re four and a half and don’t let them out until they can bench press their parents. And not forgetting the Traditionalist argument, which insists that their system is set up to breed Test Match Animals while we – certainly England and France – have rapacious club owners bleeding the players dry at the expense of the international game. It’s not rocket-science, is it?

And those are just the rugby reasons. That’s before you even stop to consider the Cranks, who set great store by the fact that the Southern Hemisphere’s doings disappear down the drain in a different direction to ours and then point out that the World Cup always falls slap bang in the middle of their Vernal Equinox and if trying to play Argentina in the middle of a Vernal Equinox doesn’t leave you at a clear disadvantage, then what does? In fact if you add it all up, it’s astonishing that the Irish got stuffed by only twenty-three.

What’s truly astonishing, of course, is how much tosh gets talked in the immediate aftermath of the final whistle in a World Cup quarter-final. Matches rarely hinge on just the one moment but, for the sake of argument, if Alex Cuthbert had stayed out instead of coming in and if Scotland hadn’t tried to throw a bar of soap to the back of a line-out when the rain was coming down like six inch nails, would we now be talking about Vernal Equinoxes and the dastardly Craig Joubert? You sense not, largely because we’d have been so drunk in the euphoria of seeing both Wales and Scotland in a World Cup semi-final we’d scarcely have been able to speak at all.

The Southern Hemisphere has a better climate for free-running rugby? Really? Have these people never been to New Zealand? Winter down there is a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. Better skill sets? Not the easiest of arguments to sell to the likes of Slade, Launchbury, Henshaw, Henderson, Russell, Gray, Webb, Faletau, Fofana and Dusatoir. These are not exactly artless simpletons, are they?

What else was there? Oh, yes, their kids are better coached. Really? So how come England have won two of the last three U20 World Championships? And the faithless, self-serving club system? Well, I didn’t hear too many people moaning about Premier Rugby back in 2003 when the good yeomen of England showed the world the mettle of their pasture. In fact, aside from 1995 – and inevitably now, 2015 – one of either England or France has made it to every single World Cup final. So we can’t be that crap, can we?

Except that this year, in fairness, we’ve proved that perhaps we can. Certainly England and France have been, well, ‘super-crap’ and if you’re looking for a relevant point of difference then the best place to start is generally between the ears and not so much of the players but of the coaches. ‘To win we need to take risks’, said the outstanding Argentinian Head Coach, Daniel Hourcade, in Cardiff on Sunday afternoon. ‘The message never changes; it is to play.’ Now what would an English supporter give to hear an English Head Coach say that? In fact the contrast between the free-spirited Argentinians and the risk-averse English probably best sums up why the bottom of the world are currently on top of the world and vice versa.

Any coach worth his salt is looking to – effectively – make himself redundant, to trust his players to run the machine and – gruesome phrase – take ownership of the team. I’m not advocating the Return of the White Knight but Clive Woodward’s great achievement was to embrace the risks and to empower his Johnsons. They both came a cropper or two along the way but, in the end, Woodward Won The World. Or, more accurately, his players did.

Can the Northern Hemisphere – hand on heart here and now in 2015 – say the same? No, they can’t. Scotland under the very impressive Vern Cotter may have shown some measure of wit and adventure but Ireland’s prescribed patterns were an accident waiting to happen, ‘Warrenball’ – again – came up short when Mother Invention asked the pertinent question and England and France could barely write their names at the top of the examination paper. Now is all this the players’ fault or should we be pointing an accusing finger at the coaches for not creating a climate in which their teams could think clearly for themselves? There’s your quandary.

Coaching – real coaching – is parenting. It is roots and wings. You ground your players – your ‘children’ – in honest values but your obligation is to teach them to fly by themselves. Certainly that appears to be what the New World does brilliantly well: again, look at Argentina where every player in the squad – uniquely in this World Cup – is home-grown but, beyond that, also understands that it’s only those who risk going too far who find out how far they can go.

And again, contrast that with, for example, England who back in August – boldly – plumped for the brilliant Henry Slade but then didn’t use him until their World Cup was over and who, when push came to shove on the team-sheet, swapped twelve months of progress due east for twelve days of uncertainty due west. What on earth were they thinking of? And what kind of impression did that negativity leave on the team?

The Southern Hemisphere just doesn’t do that. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina trust their various instincts, give their players a licence to play what’s in front of them and add in a sharp twist of ‘carpe diem’. And the confidence all that instills in its players frequently emboldens them to do something very special indeed. Just ask Argentina.

20 OCTOBER 2015

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