Is coaching a challenge of mind over matter?

Iain Morrison asks if rugby needs more inspirational leaders and less technocrats running teams?

Is Steve Borthwick the right man to sit at the top of England's coaching ladder? Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Is Steve Borthwick the right man to sit at the top of England's coaching ladder? Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

WHO should Twickenham have appointed to coach England after getting shot of Eddie Jones? The answer is obvious, England’s cricket boss Brendon McCallum, and I am only half joking. Admittedly ‘Baz’ McCullum may not know too much about rugby but firstly he is a Kiwi and secondly I am not entirely convinced that that matters very much.

The former New Zealand cricket captain has performed miracles with the England XI. Since taking over he has turned the team, and very possibly the game of Test cricket, on its head. England’s run of two win in 18 games under the previous administration has been replaced by the record of winning nine of their last 11 Test matches, and doing so in some style while utilising almost exactly the same players.

Under McCullum England have scored runs at the fastest rate in 112 year, hitting 4.13 per over in 2022. The same players, by and large, have been utterly transformed by McCullum’s wholehearted belief in them and his insistence of doing things his way. They play without fear and, in a game as dependent on psychology as cricket, that freedom has given England an enormous boost.


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In fairness rugby is moderately less psychological and a lot more physical but McCullum’s experience with England still suggests that we are looking for the wrong skill-set when picking a new coach.

I had always considered Steve Borthwick something of an Eeyore … a little short on inspiration but no matter, his sidekick Kevin Sinfield had bucketloads to spare, no? Maybe not, because inspired teams don’t ship a record number of points to France, on home soil.

It may already be too late for Borthwick, intelligent, knowledgeable and able as Leicester Tigers’ fans will testify, because he clearly lacks the one thing that England need, leadership. It seems that Owen Farrell is the only man who can provide it. How did it get to this stage, where Farrell has dominated the England dressing room for so long that the players are so many sheep without a shepherd when he is dropped for the France game?

Inspiration is a little less important at club level but it remains a vital ingredient. Mike Blair is decent, intelligent, knowledgeable, experienced and pretty well liked as far as I can fathom. In other words, he has all the traditional requirements that we look for in a potential head coach. Yet he stepped down as Edinburgh Rugby boss after failing to inspire them to perform at their best on a regular basis. That is the toughest task of any head coach and Blair didn’t have whatever it is, call it the ‘Baz factor’ if you like, and he knew it. Full marks for self awareness.

But the most obvious proponent of ‘Bazonomics’ has to be Sir Alex Ferguson. He knew football pretty well but it wasn’t his technical or tactical knowledge of the game that inspired so many United teams over the course of several decades to perform to the absolute best of their abilities.

‘Fergy’ inspired his players and his teams, through a mixture of fear, respect and something like devotion. That is a head coach/manager’s principal role, to inspire, not to coach. Fergy had minions to sweat the technical stuff, a good many of them, just as Gregor Townsend does.

People skills, in other words, trump all the technical/tactical stuff. A mix of both is better but if a coach only gets to choose one of the two then it’s a no-brainer.

Jim Telfer is cut from similar cloth. Like Ferguson he acted like a bit of a bastard, doing stuff he wouldn’t get away with today, because he felt that was the only route to success. His speech to the Lions’ forwards in 1997 still sends a shiver. England’s senior players dismissed Telfer as a mythical boogeyman before the tour started; they were very quickly eating out of his hand. When he spoke, everyone listened and Telfer got his hands dirtier than most modern ‘coaches’.

 

Notwithstanding Wales’ current woes, Warren Gatland has something about him and insiders have long confirmed that the Kiwi does very little actual coaching. Instead Gatland concentrates on the bigger picture, making sure that his team’s collective head is in the right place to perform at their best whenever they take to the field. He may be struggling right now but what Gatland achieved with Wales between 2007-19 was remarkable; two World Cup semi-finals, three Grand Slams and number one in the World Rugby rankings. Scotland have never bettered third place in the Six Nations while Wales won three Grand Slams! Gatland has the X-factor alright.

In no particular order, this is the criteria for a modern day international coach: media manipulator, national cheerleader, psychiatrist, antagonist, shaman, counsellor, strategist, selector superior, clairvoyante, high performance chief and, yes, coach (part-time).

This is why Eddie Jones makes an impact wherever he goes because he carries an aura with him. And this is why Eddie Jones never achieves long term success with any team he coaches because after a while the players pull back the curtain and see the little-big-man, Wizard of Oz, for what he is.

This is why the All Blacks have gone for Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson who definitely brings the X-factor and should have New Zealand back on top of the world in short order. The excitement surrounding the appointment is palpable and you have to feel for Ian Foster who must take his side to RWC’23 with the entire rugby world wondering why the Kiwis didn’t hand Razor the reins immediately.

Ask Irish journalists and they will tell you that Andy Farrell is fairly flat as a speaker but the man has something and Irish players buy into whatever it is that he is selling. Look at his career in League and then in Union, Farrell is a leader, people listen, players follow, Ireland thrives.

Townsend definitely had that Ready Brek glow about him as a player, at least in his pomp, and following success with Glasgow he brought plenty of cachet when he first arrived at Murrayfield as national coach. Scotland played some magical rugby and scored a host of tries when he took over in 2015 even if people said it was a little premature.

He had a vision of how the game should be played, “fastest rugby” etc etc and the players bought into it … at least for a while. He lost a lot of ground following that hopelessly one-sided defeat by Ireland at RWC’19. He had to execute a reverse ferret, effectively going from fastest rugby to slowest.

Townsend almost certainly was too young when he got the national job and his inability to work constructively with his best player, Finn Russell, only underlined as much. The coach was too strict, usually a result of insecurity, although he now seems to have relaxed into the job and after six years at the helm you would hope so.

This season something has changed, mostly in the forwards. Townsend’s Scotland are now a serious Test side that no one takes lightly. Although still below the best in the world, even his most fervent critics have to admit that the Scotland side we have seen in this Championship is populated with apostles.

Townsend’s contract is up for renewal after the Rugby World Cup and Murrayfield boss Mark Dodson has just one question to ask himself … does he inspire?


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About Iain Morrison 144 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

5 Comments

  1. Interesting thoughts Iain.

    Successful coaches are usually great in context. See Woodward with England v Woodward with Lions. There is a time and place for a coach and that corresponds with having the right players at the right time to deliver the coaches vision. See Woodward again.

    Success and failure are such fine margins at this level of performance- I don’t mean results here as England ably showed this 6N. The badly timed yellow card. The inexplicable red. Hooker misses jumper. I could go on.

    The question for GT is what squad will he have post World Cup and what can he do to improve that team? Likely without a number of current stalwarts. Interesting times.

  2. Great article. It made me think a bit. I must declare in advance , I’m not GT (or MD) fan that’s for sure…. however Townsend has pulled off some big results, that is undeniable. Unfortunately you only need to look back to the second 40 against Ireland to see why Townsend cannot continue. Ireland stepped up a gear (with no hooker) and what did we do? Now you can apportion blame, I’m way past that, I’ve simply seen the same script too many times from Townsend led teams to believe he can own a different ending.

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  3. Usually only read TOL for a laugh but this is actually a thought provoker. Immediate thought is that no, Townsend does not come across as an inspirational coach, but I don’t say that with certainty.

  4. Add to this Shaun Edwards. I suspect Kevin Sinfield will come good, he’s just not that experienced in Union yet.

    It’s interesting that League produces these characters.
    Kevin Sinfield was only the 2nd toughest and most inspirational player in his Rhinos team after Jamie Peacock.

    On the one hand they’re just obviously
    obviously as hard as nails but on the other they’re real team people.

  5. Like Eddie J, Gt’s x factor is waning after 7/8 years and a fresh inpiring impetus is needed by Scotland, as are new challenges for GT’S talents.

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