Stuart Abbott

Welsh wonders, England blunders

2008-09-05 05:46

Stuart Abbott

Anyone who watched the Super 14 games on the morning of March 15 and then the final round of the 2008 Six Nations later in the afternoon may have been bemused by the anachronism on show.

The southern hemisphere sides that morning were on the way to mastering the intricacies of the Experimental Law Variations while the northern hemisphere teams were playing to a set of laws already declared outmoded by the IRB. Would it not have made sense for the IRB to introduce their ELVs uniformly throughout their member countries?

The single most pertinent observation on the Six Nations I could make would be the influence of coaching on performance. Clearly the rugby authorities in Wales and Italy have got it right with their new appointments, while those in England, France and Ireland need to do serious soul-searching.

Astute strategist

I played under many coaches in my career, only a few of whom really impressed me. One of those was Wales coach Warren Gatland when he was at Wasps. I knew when England ignored Warren's credentials and he was persuaded to move to Cardiff, that Wales would produce something special this year.

Warren is an astute rugby strategist, superb at coaching, selection and man-management. I was sure the work ethic and intensity he would introduce to Wales would make a big difference. Add to that mix the self-belief he encourages in players and you have a winning team culture.

When he prevailed on his right-hand man at Wasps, Shaun Edwards, to join him, and then added my old Wasps teammate, Rob Howley, to the coaching team, I told my mates this was the year to put money on Wales.

That Wales conceded only two tries in 400 minutes of Six Nations rugby is a credit to Edwards's systems and the standards he demands of his players.

Talking Martyn Williams out of retirement was another Gatland masterstroke. For me he was the player of the Six Nations. Gatland had the same players to work with as Gareth Jenkins - and look at the difference in attitude and performance he's produced.

In doubt

In Nick Mallett Italy have one of the world's great rugby coaches. Italy are beginning to play with a structure and intelligence which bodes ill for their opponents. That Mallett has managed to achieve this before getting to know his players in depth and while still learning the Italian language speaks volumes for his ability.

The England win over Ireland may have saved Brian Ashton his job, but whether he is the man to lead England through to the 2011 Rugby World Cup remains much in doubt.

Clearly, there is confusion and self-doubt among the players. The self-belief of the Welsh and lack of confidence of the English is palpable. When your own players doubt your coaching and man-management, you're in trouble. England need strong, astute leadership and they aren't getting that right now.

With Gatland and Mallett committed elsewhere, should England not look at appointing Jake White? He offers a proven record at Test level and would be available at short notice. In the professional age, nationality should not be the major criterion, but if Rob Andrew will not appoint an 'outsider', should he not be looking at Clive Woodward or Dean Ryan or Dean Richards? Should Martin Johnson not be involved? When he retires, Lawrence Dallaglio could have a meaningful role to play too.

Given the boot

Frank Hadden continues to make the most of his limited Scottish player pool. One gets the impression that he'd achieve substantial success were he to coach more talented players. Marc Lievremont's first Six Nations was a disappointment. Selection appears to be haphazard, and if his players are encouraged to be creative, it isn't all that evident in the way they play. Did they err in not appointing Philippe Saint-Andre?

Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland team have become serial under-achievers. Where I come from, back in South Africa, he'd have been given the boot long ago, and he wouldn't have lasted much longer in New Zealand either. Whatever his strengths as a coach may be, he isn't getting this Ireland team to perform - a new coach can only do better.

If Martyn Williams was the player of the tournament, Danny Cipriani and James Hook were the most exciting emerging talents. There are a host of talented players in the northern hemisphere capable of matching anything the southern hemisphere can produce. We just need to get the right coaches in place to nurture that talent.


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