Northampton’s spotless start to the season came to an end against Saracens. It is not the end of the world to lose at the home of last year’s Premiership finalists but even at this early stage of the season they find themselves at a crossroads in one respect. At some stage Jim Mallinder has a decision to make regarding his fly half: he has two of top class and such are the differences in what they provide, chopping and changing can only be a solution for so long.
Stephen Myler, the more reliable kicker of the two, had a poor first game with the boot and Shane Geraghty was brought in. Now Geraghty has had a poor one. Does Mallinder change tack again? Is Geraghty now his man? If so, why did he not pick him in the first game? And can he continue to chop and change? The answer to these questions could go a long way to deciding the immediate future of Geraghty, one of the brightest young talents in the English game but one who is struggling to find his niche.
Geraghty’s game has always rested on his instinctiveness. He has a natural flair. Indeed there are a group of young English fly halves in that mould in Cipriani, Geraghty and Lamb. They all have talent in abundance but their game management is often found wanting. They have all been left out of big games to decent, but more limited players (Walder, Myler and Malone respectively). Meanwhile their contemporary Toby Flood, an arguably more solid player but one with a considerably smaller skill set, has been racking up the caps. In order to ‘make it’ they need to improve the team element of their fly half play as opposed to just the individual. Until they get that balance right they will not be seen as real contenders for higher honours at 10.
But in going through this process they run a serious risk of losing that which got them there in the first place – that flair and instinctiveness. Rugby is the ultimate team game but in this country especially there is little room for the maverick. Cipriani’s problems lie in his reluctance to compromise his own talents for the good of the team. He is seen as arrogant for this but is not the inability of the coaches to find a way to harness his talent just as concerning and frustrating?
The same goes for someone like James Simpson-Daniel who must watch with barely controllable envy as James O’Connor plays nominally on the wing for Australia but in reality in a free role in which he is encouraged to roam the pitch and cause havoc wherever he sees the opportunity. Not rocket science, just a judicious use of a rare talent. Why fit him into a team structure when he is potentially at his most dangerous outside it?
Fly halves have less licence in this regard as they dictate the shape of the team. It is correct that they are being coached to manage the game better but it should not be at the cost of taking the instinctiveness out of them. They were signed because of their natural rugby ability, and if they are thinking too hard about what they are doing they will miss opportunities to do what they do best. They are high risk, high reward players and coaches have to accept that mistakes will happen.
There are similar examples in other sports. Kevin Pietersen received so much criticism for getting out in irresponsible ways early in his career that he has stopped trusting his instincts. But who would you rather have in your team: the Pietersen who blazed his way to 94 against South Africa a couple of years ago only to get out self-indulgently trying to go to 100 with a 6, or the Pietersen who could barely get the ball off the square this summer? There are obviously more to Pietersen’s problems than that but to my mind the issue started when he stopped trusting his instincts.
Ryan Giggs said that all the best things he has done on a football pitch have been instinctive and have ‘just happened’. This suggests that increased coaching and time spent programming people is of limited utility and can be counterproductive. If everybody on the pitch is largely programmed then it makes the special things which people like Geraghty and Giggs can do even more important. The difference in rugby is the potential consequences of a risk not coming off. Giggs has got a defensive line behind him to clean up the mess if he loses the ball. A loose pass from Geraghty anywhere on the pitch can lead straight to a try.
The point here is that Geraghty has a wider skill set than Myler but if he is constantly worried that any mistake might see him dropped then he will play with too much fear and will lose effectiveness. Coaches should not restrain players like him too much. If you’re going to do that you might as well not pick them at all. The shame is that we do not seem to produce the sort of rounded fly halves like Dan Carter and Matt Giteau who can run, kick, pass and manage. The closest we have come is Charlie Hodgson who to my mind has been horribly mistreated by supporters and selectors alike over the years.
If you are going to pick the likes of Lamb and Geraghty at fly half you have to stick with them if they make the odd mistake and miss the odd kick. Only through knowing that they have the coach’s absolute backing will they be able to show their natural ability and also grow into the role of all round general. Chopping and changing will only stunt their progress and could end up ruining them.
By Stuart Peel