ONE of Eddie Jones’ strengths as a coach is that he has always been prepared to think out of the box, and be innovative. However, his recent suggestion that international coaches – and presumably those in the pro club game – should be allowed to stalk the sidelines like football managers is an innovation too far.
That’s because it stands a good chance of being a licence for chaos, with flashpoints involving players, match officials, and coaches much more likely with the sport’s tactical ring-masters shouting instructions – and invective – from the sidelines.
Here is the explanation the England head coach gave in the latest edition of his RFU podcast for his need to get closer to the action, rather than being confined to designated areas in the stands where they, their analysts, and some of their assistant coaches, attempt to divine a winning strategy from the match footage.
“Ideally, you would do the first-half in the stand to look at patterns (of play), what tactically they are trying to do, and where you can expose them in the second half …a lot of times (the second half) is more about emotion, digging deep, and you could add some value on the side of the pitch.”
Jones said that he had an influence as a coach on the sidelines during his time in Japan, and commented that football managers have even more opportunity to do so – and that Rugby Union can learn from it.
Jones added: “Having that balance of being able to get how the game is evolving, and then add something to the emotional side of the game, could make it quite interesting.”
There is an argument that if Jones’ suggestion was adopted it might add to the theatre surrounding the game – however, Rugby Union should be very wary of that proposal.
The idea that frequent altercations between those on the sidelines is entertaining is not one that is proven. Tedious and time-wasting is a more apt description.
Do we want coaches to start criticising referees and their assistants, or pile pressure on them when they are within earshot by making ‘suggestions’? And do we want the action on the pitch held up while special touchline referees brandish red cards at coaches who show dissent, and then have to be removed to the stands?
There were two incidents before the lockdown that indicate clearly the potential for this escalation to take place.
The first was when Jones was so incensed by Kiwi referee Ben O’Keeffe’s decisions to card two England players against Wales in March that he commented, “by the end it was 13 against 16”.
Given that the England coach said this at the post-match Press conference after he had had time to calm down, it stands to reason he would have been less restrained if he was pitchside during the live action.
The other incident which underlines the dangers of touchline discord was in a European Cup match in December when the Munster doctor made a derogatory comment to the Saracens hooker Jamie George as he was about to throw-in, resulting in a fracas involving most of the players on the pitch.
Is it in the game’s best interests for coaches to be the story any more than they are already? Coaches have had a massive influence since the game went professional, and it even extends now to a new iron-curtain where they frequently ‘protect’ players by making them unavailable for media interviews.
My belief is that when Rugby Union is played on match day it becomes a player’s game, in which it is up to them to find a way to win, whether through superior skill, sharper tactical thinking, or greater physical prowess.
Coaches have all week on the training field in which to prepare their players, and the last thing we need, or want, is their constant interference during a match.
The game is interrupted far too often at the moment, with players ‘taking a knee’, usually after a signal from the physios’ dugout on the touchline, to feign injury. This is so that an assistant-coach masquerading as a water-carrier can run onto the pitch to pass on tactical instructions, or to give forwards a rest before a scrum.
Right now this is the Rugby Union equivalent of a time-out in American Football, and it is an unwelcome import.
It stops the contest, stalls momentum, and leaves fans bored and bemused as they watch blokes in tracksuits run on and off the pitch carrying water bottles.
Imagine the mayhem if you had a head coach looking for ‘more emotional involvement’ having a platoon of them on the sidelines that he orders onto the pitch – using a bogus injury as the passport – whenever his side are under pressure.
Consider the issues that could come into play also if emotionally involved coaches on the sidelines have more direct control of bench players warming-up, with the potential for them to distract or obstruct match officials.
American Football is a regimented set-piece game with fixed plays, whereas Rugby Union is meant to be a fluid game in which there is a constant contest for the ball – including at the set piece.
The tradition of our sport is that when players are on the pitch it is a battle of wits between them, and coaches have no means of intervention other than at half-time. Over the last 15 years that concept has been almost completely eroded, with coaches taking increasing control of match-play.
That’s what makes this sideline bid by Eddie Jones the right time to tell coaches to get back in their box.
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