Cain column: The control freaks will stifle rugby fans’ interest

IT seems that one of the requirements to be a top level coach is also to be a fully-fledged control freak, and this week Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick both made power grabs that emphasised the trait. That they should do so in the same week is probably not an accident, given that Jones and Borthwick worked hand-in-glove together for seven years, with Fast Eddie installing the former Bath/England lock as forwards coach with Japan, and then with the Red Rose men, before he joined Leicester.

Jones wants a change to having to announce his match squad 48 hours before an international, which he called an “archaic” rule. Instead, he wants to name his starting fifteen on the day of the match.

Jones offered this rationale on BBC 5 Live: “The rules of naming a starting 15 and a finishing eight is quite archaic, and we should just be allowed to name the squad of 23 and then pick on the day who starts and who finishes.”

Flexing his muscle as one of Rugby Union’s new breed of football-style ‘supercoaches’, he added: “It would add a bit more drama to the game. It would be really good (if) two hours before kick-off the name sheets are provided and you know who you’re playing against.”

A strong counterpoint to the Jones argument is that while it might cause a minor jolt of surprise on the bus to the game – mainly to the opposition coach – the talking point would barely impact the fans in the stadium, or the TV audience, because it will be swallowed up by the live action.

The point about announcing line-ups 48 hours before matches is because it keeps the interest in the match alive for at least a week ahead of it. 

First there is the conjecture among supporters about what changes the coach should make, and then about which players can be brought in, and to what effect. Fans thrive on this involvement, and being able to debate the pros and cons of selection all adds to the sense of anticipation.

Why mess with a proven dynamic that keeps your sport among the highest profile in the land? As an Aussie, Jones should know what it is like when that is not the case, because in his homeland Rugby Union is bumped down the backpage pecking order so far by Aussie rules, rugby league, and football that it is often almost invisible.

This lack of profile is a significant factor in the 15-man code being in decline Down Under.

If Jones was to get his way regarding delayed team announcements, then Premiership coaches would soon want the same.

This would mean that club fans, who wait avidly for the announcement of their teams at mid-day Thursday/Friday every week, will be left guessing until they arrive at the match. My hunch is that it would lead more to frustration and a sense of non-inclusion than to pre-match tension.

Every organisation in the pro game pays lip-service to the fans, but are the words matched by actions? 

Supporters being taken for granted might be something for Borthwick to consider as he attempts to stop the slide at Leicester. There is consternation among some of the 10,000 Tigers members who own shares, and cumulatively have a 39 per cent stake in the club, that the club’s AGM on December 17 will not be open to them by conference call. 

Leicester chairman Peter Tom has informed them that a video conference call – which could be arranged for 100 to 200 members relatively easily and inexpensively – is logistically too difficult.

There is conjecture on the LeicesterTigers.com, the supporters independent website, that what Tom and his board are more concerned about is avoiding difficult questions from members.

Insulated: Leicester Tigers head coach Steve Borthwick refused to proved the media with an update on injuries. Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

This week Borthwick also appeared to have a problem in terms of answering questions from the media.

In a midweek Press conference he interrupted a request for an update on player availability for the Tigers visit to London Irish to say: “I will pause you there to say that I don’t talk about players’ fitness or availability. I announce the team when the team is made public.”

As head coach a key part of Borthwick’s job is to communicate with fans as well as players, and that the media is his main outlet for doing that.

Supporters are interested in the status of their squad, and the idea that a coach is giving trade secrets away by saying a player is a couple of weeks away from fitness, or will be under consideration this week, is nonsense.

One of the drawbacks in supercoaches being given too much influence is the desire on the part of some of them to control everything. It is part of our sport’s lemming-like drive to follow Premier League football, where saturation coverage of supercoaches like Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola dominates the airwaves.

In rugby it has shape-shifted into coaches wanting a web of control that extends to when team line-ups are announced, or refusing to talk about fitness and availability – or any other subject they put out of bounds. 

The shadow of the supercoach explains why we have a generation of players during the Jones era where a strange dumbing down appears to have taken place, with many sticking to a straight and narrow narrative even though they have much more to say.

It offers an explanation of why, despite England playing in a World Cup final and winning a Six Nations Grand Slam and two Championships under Jones, his squad has no totemic figures to compare with Will Carling, Jeremy Guscott, Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio or Jonny Wilkinson.   

The mindset shown by Jones and Borthwick says we are not content with leading roles, we want to write the script as well.

NICK CAIN

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