With Mike Catt giving England coaching directives while on the pitch during Six Nations matches last season, and Neil Jenkins doing the same for Leigh Halfpenny during the Lions tour, there are signs this season that match-coaching is becoming increasingly widespread.
On Friday night Geordan Murphy, the Leicester backs coach, was on the pitch giving tactical direction during the Tigers 22-16 Heineken Cup defeat by Ulster at Ravenhill – as was his Ulster counterpart, Neil Doak.
On any Premiership weekend the same applies, with the assistant coaches in virtually every team in the league going on the pitch to coach. They are either making tactical tweaks themselves or passing on messages from the directors of rugby, and their analysts, surveying the action from the stands.
Ludicrously, they are also masquerading as water carriers.
For those of you wondering just when coaches were given the green light to go on the pitch, it began in 2011.
According to an IRB spokesman it is the result of ‘a protocol’ issued by the world governing body at that time, effectively overturning a principle of coaches being able to address tactical issues only at half-time.
In other words, it is a non-compulsory guideline framed by the IRB’s technical services department which has been ushered in through the back door.
There has been no open debate about its merits, it has simply materialised because it was considered to be a good idea by a group of IRB staffers.
My view is that allowing direct coaching and tactical intervention during matches is contrary to the idea of rugby union being primarily a player’s game. Not only that, it is contrary to existing laws framed by the IRB.
The main point of the game is that it is a contest where players pit their skills, their athletic prowess, and, mostimportant of all, their wits and ability to read the game and react, against each other.
That is why, for example, Law 4.4 (j) specifically prohibits, “communication devices within a player’s clothing or attached to the body”.
This regulation came into the spotlight after the 2003 World Cup when there was speculation – all of it unproven – that some Australian backs had communications devices sewn into their protective headgear.
This begs an important question: How can players be prohibited from communicating with coaches through listening devices while they are on the pitch, when one of those coaches can now run onto the pitch with a bottle of water at any break in play and give them the same information?
It is nonsense. However, perhaps we shouldn’t expect common sense from the IRB, a governing body that failed for over a decade to uphold straightforward Laws in plain English – in particular their own regulation at the scrum that “the scrum-half must throw in the ball straight along the middle line”.
It would be better for the game if coaches worked on their tactical plans and deployments during training in the week before a match, and that their input on match days was confined to pre-match, half-time and post-match team talks.
As we have seen over the last decade, tinkering with the laws is a dangerous business which, almost invariably, has unforeseen consequences – and, in turn, promotes further unnecessary tinkering.
The arrival of water-carrier coaches is already having an effect with players feigning injury – particularly before scrums – so that their tacticians can come onto the pitch and tell them how, when, and where to attack the opposition.
What protocol will be introduced by the IRB to tackle an increase in tactical injuries? Continuous unnecessary stoppages disrupt the flow of the game, and are disliked by spectators – whether in stadiums or watching from their armchairs – far more than reset five metre scrums, which in close contests often build dramatic tension.
The IRB’s current ‘Technical Zone’ protocol allows for two water carriers per team – who can both be assistant coaches, but not the head coach – and two medically trained personnel.
My suggestion is that the IRB should think again and red-card water carrier coaches for good – unless, of course, they are following the American Football principle of having a stoppage before every ‘play’.
In addition, ensure that the two medical personnel are not permitted to be wired up to anyone other than an independent medical co-ordinator on the touchline.
That way we will see a contest between players – not a circus in which the only people allowed any initiative are the controllers in the coaching booths sending their water-carrier emissaries to do their bidding on the pitch.
Tagged Nick Cain