Trust between player and coaches the key to arresting England decline

Stuart Peel is back in town and writing exclusively for The Rugby Blog during this year’s RBS Six Nations – and what better place to start than assessing England’s problems?

Often rugby supporters, including those on this site, are not very kind about football. We rather laugh at the sport’s excesses, brand it soft and snigger at its self-importance, while basking in the fact that camaraderie between supporters and Corinthian spirit is alive and well in the oval ball game. In reality the true position of both lies somewhere between these extremes and there is plenty that each can learn from the other.


Casting the mind back to England’s dismal displays in the Autumn internationals (sorry to bring that up again), what really grated was the lack of cohesion between the players, the apparent lack of understanding of the gameplan and confusion regarding what precisely they were trying to achieve. If there was a strategy of any description, it was heavily disguised, and this was from the supposed best players in the country, men who turn in excellent performances for their clubs every week.
Now read this extract from the Times match report after Manchester United, with 3 midfielders playing in the back 4, their star striker injured and a novice pulling the strings in the middle, had dished out a 4-0 hammering to West Ham United:

Ferguson does not panic when Plan A disintegrates. Even when Plans B and C have been ripped to shreds, too, the trust in his squad — especially the fringe members, the frustrated B-listers — is absolute. What was he effin’ doing? Taking them out of their comfort zones, asking them to perform alien tasks, demanding versatility in potential adversity. Yet safe in the knowledge that they would not let him down. And they did not.

Sir Alex Ferguson has created an environment in which all individuals feel comfortable, know their jobs and have the courage and the nerve to take the initiative, however inexperienced they are. In the absence of seasoned campaigners, youngsters such as Darron Gibson and Rafael came to the fore and performed with aplomb.

Contrast this with the England rugby team. Much was made of the fact that virtually an entire first team was incapacitated in some way. This was regularly used as an excuse for poor results. It could be seen as a valid excuse for a club team or for a country with limited resources, but not for the largest rugby population in the world. But rather than an opportunity to be seized, it seemed as though it acted as a safety net into which the blame for any abject performances could be deflected. There was an air of defeatism from the start, plan A had gone and there was little trust in plan B.

In such an environment, few flourished. There was little evidence even of a plan at all. If there was one, the players either did not understand it or did not believe in it. Too many of them seemed inhibited. If the job of a coaching team is to get the best out of their charges both as individuals and as a unit, England’s failed spectacularly. Indeed, so limited was the ambition the injuries became irrelevant – they could have put anyone out there and they would have sunk without trace.

But can the finger be pointed squarely at the England coaches? One of the gripes about modern day rugby is that too many players are automatons who can throw huge amounts of metal around in the gym and tackle and carry the ball in straight lines until they’re blue in the face, but too few who can respond to the situation in front of them and make a split second decision in the knowledge that his teammates will respond. Too few are happy to emerge from their comfort zones.

Gloucester’s travails this season are a case in point. Bryan Redpath’s stated intention has been to move them away from the regimented approach of the Dean Ryan era and get them playing ‘heads up’ rugby, encouraging the players to express themselves. And Gloucester have been a mess. This could be poor coaching but there is evidence that the players are simply being asked to do things they are not used to and are not up to it. Could it be that England’s real problem is that they are being presented with players who cannot perform alien tasks or show versatility in adversity like Ferguson’s youngsters?

Too many of England’s players have many caps to their names and have only rarely made telling contributions. Mathew Tait has 30-odd caps, Dan Hipkiss, Danny Care, Toby Flood, and James Haskell a decent number. How often have any of them strongly influenced the outcome of a game? Often they play as though avoiding conspicuous mistakes will be enough to retain their place. Is this timidness on their part or are they afraid of getting dropped if they divert from the coach’s instructions?

It is often pointed out that new England players in recent years have come into a weak team which lacks confidence. But contrast them with the Australia team who recently toured. Having lost 5 out of 6 games in the Tri-Nations, they came to these shores and performed admirably. Players such as Quade Cooper and Will Genia stepped up and wielded significant influence. The All Blacks do not believe in rebuilding phases. Being selected for New Zealand comes with massive responsibility and no excuses. Losing is not tolerated, whatever the context. This is an attitude sorely missing from England and is holding them back at least as much as any lack of talent.


So which is it? Rigid, inflexible coaching or blinkered, limited players? The squad list for the Six Nations places the heat right back on the coaches. They have picked a squad to play a limited game. Do not believe the hype about picking Chris Ashton to score more tries. The root of most tries is quick ball, playing flat and direction at half back. England have picked a lumbering front five severely short on dynamism. They have picked no fewer than 4 fly halves in the Saxons squad (Charlie Hodgson, Shane Geraghty, Danny Cipriani and Stephen Myler), all of whom are arguably more adept at firing a back line than either Toby Flood or Jonny Wilkinson. Almost every decision smacks of conservatism, suggesting England will have a prescribed gameplan. Let’s hope the players know what it is this time.

Jonny Wilkinson wrote recently of the Six Nations that it “is more like a series of one-off games. No matter how much you prepare, there remains the feeling that you have to play more off the cuff.” Evidence would suggest that if that is true, England are in trouble. Either the coaches are being too prescriptive, flooding the players with so much information, they struggle to even make a decision let alone the right one; or the players are simply not capable of responding to the demands to play what is in front of them, to show the qualities possessed by Manchester United’s players. The players and the coaches are not on the same page and if we are to see a team with any semblance of shape, confidence and cohesion solving this riddle must be the number one priority.

By Stuart Peel

6 thoughts on “Trust between player and coaches the key to arresting England decline

  1. “Much was made of the fact that virtually an entire first team was incapacitated in some way. This was regularly used as an excuse for poor results. It could be seen as a valid excuse for a club team or for a country with limited resources, but not for the largest rugby population in the world.”


    You throw 15 players together who’ve never played a game of rugby together, let alone an international, and see how they get on. Oh hang on, we did, in the autumn.

    And on the point of players playing ‘excellently for the clubs week in week out’ – have you seen the standard of the premiership this season?

    “Could it be that England’s real problem is that they are being presented with players who cannot perform alien tasks or show versatility in adversity like Ferguson’s youngsters?”

    Spot on. We saw it in the world cup 2007 when the players said they wanted to be told what to do, not liking Brian Ashton’s style of heads up, play what you see, rugby.

    Your point about Toby Flood being unable to ‘fire a backline’ is rubbish. He has a great rugby brain, great distribution and an eye for the gap, that’s why he’s in the squad, rather than flakey showpony Geraghty. And I’m not even a Tigers fan.

  2. Steve, I think you are being unfair on the standard of the Premiership. You can’t really use the fact that there haven’t been many memorable games as evidence that individual players are not performing.

    Take Geraghty and Foden, or even Borthwick and Banahan – all have failed to translate club form to international form.

    I do agree about Flood. I’m not his biggest fan, but since coming back from injury, he has been firing the Tigers backline.

  3. Steve – a few injuries (and it was more like 6 or 7 than 15) do make a difference, but are you really suggesting they are a sufficient excuse for the poor performance in the AI’s? I doubt very much we would have seen a different result in any of the games if the injured players had all been available. To me, factors such as poor selection, lack of gameplan, lack of motivation/team spirit within the camp and the culture of fear of failure are far more relevant than the injuries.

    Regarding your comment:
    “You throw 15 players together who’ve never played a game of rugby together, let alone an international, and see how they get on. Oh hang on, we did, in the autumn.”

    Yes we did! They’re called the Baba’s and they demonstrated that a scratch team that is motivated and organized can achieve remarkable results.

  4. Agreed, Uncle Matt, the Baabaas unceremoniously demolished most of England’s excuses. And even if the calibre of players England had on offer was lower, that is no excuse for not looking as though you know what you’re doing. They had 2-3 weeks together in training before the series which is not far off what the Lions had before their tour and they nearly beat the World Champions. By the end they had been together for over a month and seemingly no progress had been made.

    I take your point about Flood. I would actually start him against Wales forthe very reason that he fires a backline better than Wilkinson at the moment. However, I still see him as a more conservative option than those in the Saxons – not that that’s necessarily bad, it just shows where the coaches’ heads are at. Re Geraghty, I think he’s been incredibly hard done by. He was the only England player trying anything in the autumn but because of Wilkinson’s alignment he was having to do it 10 yards behind the gain line. They are therefore not compatible but I think Geraghty has taken the fall for someone else’s limitations.

  5. It’s the coaching all day long for me.

    I know that Tait for example is getting close to 30 caps, but I’d like to see some stats on his consecutive caps, not to mention how many of those were off the bench.

    Of course he plays to avoid mistakes – his England career began with him pitched in way too early against Wales where he was shown up by an in-form Henson (remember him?) and his place in the squad has been precarious ever since with no coach ever giving him a free rein or a continued run in the side except a bit of a run under Ashton.

    Can’t blame him for playing to avoid mistakes – many average players have built a 50+ cap career out of it. Contrast that with Anthony Allen (interception pass on debut, no caps since) Nick Kennedy (average debut, now considered worse than Deacon despite little chance to redeem himself) Toby Flood (interception pass on debut, patchy selection ever since). Trying something risky has ended many an England career.

    This philosophy is not just down to Johnno – it dates right back to Robinson, who treated Alex Brown in much the same way that Kennedy has now been treated.

    The lack of gameplan can only be down to the coaches when it’s gone on for as long as it has, and our aimlessness goes much further back than the autumn. Witness the newly knighted Mc.Geechan on Living with the Lions 1997 – he didn’t even think about what players to pick until he’d decided on the gameplan that was needed to beat the Boks in their own backyard. Then he selected the team and didn’t do too bad a job!

    I don’t feel that Johnno is working this way. There are many ways to approach a game of rugby, but what gameplan in the world involves picking Ayoola Erinle at inside centre? Or indeed anywhere?

    Totally agree about Geraghty being the victim of trying to play rugby instead of trying to bore the opposition to defeat. Jonny will always have his place in rugby folklore, but he is not the most enterprising 10 in the world by a long, long way.

  6. Hutch, Gatland was 100% right in his criticism of the Guinness Premiership this season. It is of an awful standard this year. Not only are the clubs struggling to show any decent quality in the league but Bath, Quins, Gloucester have all crashed out of the Heineken Cup, Sale are probably next, London Irish bottled two games against a terrible Scarlets outfit, and Leicester need to win at the weekend to qualify. And on your point about Geraghty, Foden, Banahan and Borthwick not taking their club form to international level… could it be that those players just aren’t international standard and can’t make the step up? In three of those cases, perhaps it’s too early for them to really make an impact anyway.

    The argument about the Baabaas is completely flawed. Play that Baabaas team (which had ten times the amount of quality player-wise than England have at their disposal) in front of a first choice All Blacks or Australia side, in a TEST MATCH environment, with high stakes, and watch them get humiliated. Ireland won a grand slam because their players have been together for years. Pub teams, Guinness Premiership and Magners League clubs, S14 franchises and international sides need time to gel together and play as a cohesive unit. Anyone who disagrees with this very basic premise needs a rethink. You can’t expect results against the best team in the world with entirely new combinations across the field. In England’s case that was: an entirely new front row, a new back row, a new 9 and 10, totally new centre partnership and a couple of new fullbacks.

    Uncle Mat… You say there were 6 or 7 injuries in the autumn? Try Sheridan, Mears, Vickery, White, Wilson (2 games), Shaw (2 games), Worsley (1 game), Rees, Easter, Ellis, Flood, Cipriani, Flutey, Turner Hall, Tindall, Armitage, Strettle, Morgan. There’s probably more I’m forgetting but those are 18 injuries. 10 of which are first choice starters, with half of the rest likely bench men.

    My point was that it doesn’t matter how many players play in England, international rugby is about a core group of players that trust each other and play as one, throwing in a new XV every international period isn’t the way to build a team, let alone start winning big matches. Johnson WAS building this (by sticking to mostly the same XV over the Six Nations in 2009) but injuries have forced England to start from scratch, again.

    England needed stability at the end of 2009 most of all. Had England had the team that finished the Six Nations on a high, scoring tries for fun left right and centre (16 in 5 games), they would have been far more competitive, and probably won one of the matches against the southern hemisphere, possibly even both given the relatively close margins they ended up being.

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