NOT long after Gregor Townsend was handed the keys to the family car, I was chatting to a member of ‘Stern’ Vern’s crew who was about to be jettisoned to make way for the Scot. The character in question predicted an unhappy future for a Scotland squad under the new management.
I put this down to sour grapes at the time but his reasoning took me by surprise and it resonates today in light of the Finn Russell affair. Townsend, and the rest of his management team, the insider explained, were a tad too serious, humourless even, and too inexperienced to understand the crucial need for downtime when the players are simultaneously under the microscope and under the cosh in high profile tournaments like the Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup.
In contrast, Cotter had enough ‘old school’ coursing through his veins to cut them some slack, to ensure the players could kick back at the appropriate time and leaven a diet of unrelenting pressure.
This conclusion came back to haunt me in Japan during RWC’19 when I bumped into one player’s parent after Scotland had exited the tournament. I mouthed the usual platitudes about the results not being great but expressed the wish that Junior had still enjoyed his World Cup experience?
The answer only came after some contemplation… no, on balance the parent thought, probably not. Enjoyment was not on the menu and Stuart “I didn’t want to think about rugby ever again” McInally may even concur.
One player does not amount to a statistical hill of beans but I mentioned this anecdote to another Scottish Rugby insider who had been in Japan. I got a wry smile and the admission that “it was a pretty stressful environment” by way of reply.
It might be worth picking at this particular scab because Scotland travel to Dublin for the opening match in the Six Nations come the first weekend of February and the Irish have been conducting their own post mortem on (yet) another disappointing World Cup quarter-final exit.
The Irish skipper Rory Best, who is a canny communicator, has spoken about Joe Schmidt and the relentless regime the fastidious Kiwi coach, dubbed “Schmidtler”, fostered.
While lavishing praise on Schmidt for that astonishing annus mirabilis 2018, Best also conceded that the Irish coach had started to commandeer space, on the morning of a Test match especially, that was traditionally given over to the players.
“Too much detail, too much tension,” was the most memorable of Best’s quotes that day and you can almost hear Scottish heads nodding in sympathy.
“We started to just let Joe do everything,” said Best. “The great thing about ’18 was we had our own voice, our own mind. And we had that freedom at the end of the week to step into the space, to lead, that allowed us to lead. You can’t just turn up at the Aviva Stadium at five o’clock and say: ‘Right, it’s our turn to lead’….In ’19, that end of the week space was starting to be filled a bit much with coaches.”
Townsend makes much of his willingness to learn from other coaches, not least the charismatic Pep Guardiola but he could look a little closer to home and pick up some tips from across the Irish Sea, if only on what not to do.
As a player, the fly-half would always wanted to run the show, make every call, and nothing much appears to have changed just because Townsend has swapped his lead violin for the conductor’s baton.
Just as Schmidt failed to trust his players the mumble emerging from the Scotland camp post World Cup was that Townsend was making (or attempting to make) every call from the bleachers. Just as Schmidt side-lined his coaching team, the exact same charge has been aimed at Townsend although we will see if the new recruits, Steve Tandy and Pieter de Villiers, have a happier experience.
It is a devilish difficult thing for a coach to do, cede control back to the players, especially when your feet are being held to the fire, results are hard to come by and your team were operating at 63% capacity the last time they met the men in green in that embarrassing World Cup opener.
Every fibre of coach in your body is screaming ‘get a grip’ when, counterintuitively, the only solution is to let go; to give the players ownership of what they are doing as well as the time and space to breathe, to trust your on-field leaders to lead and the decision-makers to decide, because every study shows that people take better care of things they own.
The very best coaches in top class sport somehow lessen the burden on their charges, allowing the players to make decisions on the field and express their full range of talents to play their game to the best of their ability.
The rest of them act as a transformer that only multiplies the psychological stresses and strains until they become an overwhelming burden … with the inevitable effect that has on the players and their performance.