A Tale of 2 coaches – England should learn lessons from the Irish example

What a contrast in the manner in which the Irish and English Rugby Unions have dispensed with their respective coaches in the past month.

The Irish looked their man squarely in the eye and said ‘Eddie, it’s just not working anymore, you and us. It’s over. But we don’t want to just throw you on the street, we will let you depart with dignity, with our praise and thanks ringing in the shell-likes into which we once whispered sweet nothings’.

The English adopted a different approach. They ignored Ashton’s phone calls, told him they were busy and couldn’t meet up. He found out that they were seeing other people through hearsay and was left to feel used, maltreated as the RFU prepared themselves to commit to a new man without even phone call. In the end the RFU told him that they still wanted to be friends but Brian could be forgiven for telling them he never wants to see them again (or words to that effect) and erasing them from his phonebook.

So how did England manage to get themselves into such a mess? Well they are reaping what they sewed the minute they put their head coach in a strait jacket by not letting him pick his own coaches and by bringing in an ‘Elite Performance Director’ to breath down his neck but not take any of the flak. The Irish conversation must have been simple:

‘Things are going badly and need to change. Who’s in charge?’
‘Eddie O’Sullivan’
‘Right, get rid of him’
‘Righto, consider it done’

In England I imagine it went along the lines of:

‘Things are going badly and need to change. Who’s in charge?’
‘Well Brian’s head coach but John Wells has a say in things. And there’s Rob of course’
‘Well what does he do?’
‘Not entirely sure. You’ll find him behind the sofa. He’s sort of in overall charge but doesn’t involve himself in team affairs. Unless the team’s winning of course. But they’re not so it’s probably not his fault’
‘Well who put this stupid structure in place?’
‘We did sir’
‘Ah, well let’s have an interminable series of meetings to talk it over then’.

I’m paraphrasing obviously, but I don’t think I’m too far from being on the money. As soon as a man not involved in team affairs, and therefore removed from accountability when it comes to the team’s performance, was allowed to pick the coaches, a situation like this was the potential outcome. In Ireland, Eddie O’Sullivan reigned supreme, as did Gareth Jenkins in Wales, Bernhard Laporte in France and just about any head coach of a leading rugby team, international or otherwise. It is only England where it seems to have been messed up.

So if Ireland had the right structure, what went wrong? Well the whole thing had gone stale. The long-serving coach needs to constantly keep moving and strive for improvement to avoid stagnation, complacency and too cosy an environment. In private, constantly questioning what you are doing and working for improvement is not a sign of weakness but is an absolutely essential part of the job.

O’Sullivan had become so utterly convinced that every decision he had ever made was correct that he failed to act when circumstances around him changed. He was so set in what he was doing that he failed to see the wood for the trees, failing to realise that some of his leading players were stagnating and that to achieve renewal and progress, an injection of dynamic young blood was necessary.

In the 6 Nations a strange role reversal had taken place in the Ireland team. Usually when you introduce new players, the coach and the established players have to drag them up to the requisite level. But O’Sullivan and his experienced lieutenants were being hauled along by the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan, Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney. It was this sight which must have made the Irish powers-that-be realise that O’Sullivan was being left behind in the slipstream. It was time to move on.

Sir Alex Ferguson has always been the master at the art of reinvention. Any time a player, no matter how senior, began to slip below the required standards or was no longer a productive force in the team, he was out. Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, Jaap Stam, Ruud Van Nistelrooy all suffered the same fate. Everyone thought Ferguson was mad when he got rid of these guys but on every occasion he was proved right. He understands probably more clearly than anyone else that no matter how long you have been in a job, in order to stay at number one you have to keep moving, and keep asking ‘What next?’.

This is the challenge which will face Martin Johnson but not for some years. For now he has to put his own procedures in place, bring in the right people and stamp his authority. Everything to do with the England team must be ratified by him first – the kit, the training facilities, the layout of the changing room, everything The groundsman at Twickenham should be consulting him to make sure the pH of the soil meets with his approval. He will obviously surround himself with experts but his is the final word in all matters.

He must keep everything moving. Clive Woodward has admitted that probably 9 out of 10 of his ideas were crackpot and were abandoned but the ones that stuck were the critical non-essentials which created that extra 1% which made his team stand apart. Hopefully Johnson will be allowed leeway to put his plans in place. He is being compared to Woodward but they are very different. Woodward thought so far out of the box he was often in a different post code but Johnson is a basics man and will act in his own distinct way.

The bottom line is that he must be allowed to do things his way. And if it all goes wrong (God forbid) then he’s out, cleanly and quickly. The RFU may have made a mess of the whole process, and Ashton wouldn’t agree but all in all, while the end doesn’t justify the means, we may just have got there in the end.

By Stuart Peel

One thought on “A Tale of 2 coaches – England should learn lessons from the Irish example

  1. Johnno’s in charge of everything including the kit? That is a revelation – if he can persuade the RFU to ditch the comedy league kit, I for one would hold him in even higher esteem than I already do!

    The whole “what does Rob Andrew do?” debate could get even more focus in the next year or so. Can you imagine Johnno turning to him for help if things don’t start off too well for him? I don’t think so. And if he does, the thought of Andrew offering any useful assistance is even more far-fetched. It really should have been Johnno in for Andrew instead of under him, but hey, it’s still a big step forward (aside from the way it’s all been handled of course).

    Does anyone know whether Johnno will still take up his position on the Professional Game Board (or whatever it’s called)? Or does the England role mean he won’t be? Haven’t seen any mention of it.

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