All team sports become like chess, or ‘sports manager’ fantasy computer games, when it comes to a major tournament. In terms of soccer, rugby, field hockey (you can add your own further examples) we’re talking mostly European and World Cups, or possibly – if they’re admitted to the fold – Olympic Games.
There’s the ‘hare and the tortoise’ angle – how many times have we seen a national side that goes off like a firecracker in its group matches, winning games with new and exciting style, apparently sweeping all before them … only to fall by the wayside when it comes to the knockout stages?
There are injuries, unforeseeable misfortunes, disciplinary issues – all the random delights and frustrations of being incarcerated together, including tedium and the task of keeping those ‘squad’ players on the periphery who aren’t getting picked on-side and supportive.
Then there is the quality of the team and the coaching staff. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, or so they say.
On the one hand, as head coach, do you go all romantic and pick the most exciting, entertaining and creative (but perhaps maverick and risky) players in order to get the project on the front foot and – if you like – actually positively go out and try to win the tournament?
Or – on the other – do you go for dependable solidity and rely upon building upon your rock-like defence, ignoring the potentially troublesome creative mavericks and instead filling your squad with dull but worthy veterans who can do a job for you and maybe even stop the other side playing (if that’s what it takes) as a deliberate tactic?
At the end of the day, or maybe the decade, or maybe some fifty years later looking back, arguably all that matters is whether you won the coveted trophy of the moment or not. In the warm glow of victory and euphoria, your fans won’t care that on the day (or throughout the tournament) your team bored the nation and the global television audience to death – all they’ll care about is that your country’s name was indelibly engraved on the trophy’s base.
When it comes to it, the sport of rugby union is no exception to these rules.
Let us not forget that the England Rugby World Cup triumph of 2003 was a complete happen-chance borne of a group of outstanding players at their peak and straightforward pragmatism. Clive Woodward was no visionary, much as he likes to portray different.
He began his tenure as England coach picking exciting talents and trying to play attractive, expansive rugby … and losing.
Eventually, almost as much by accident as design, he and his players drew their wagons around the concept of basically playing ten-man rugby (a strong, dominant set of forwards plus whippet-like scrum halves and Jonny Wilkinson at 10) and throttled the life out of their opposing teams. They worked very hard at it, too, of course, but (the bottom line is) that is the simple truth of how they won the Cup.
Later today Stuart Lancaster will name his rugby union England training squad for the Six Nations and not just he and his coaching staff will have one eye on the summer friendly matches and the 2015 Rugby World Cup to follow in the autumn. For players with aspirations to represent their country in that rare animal, a ‘home’ RWC, but who don’t get into the Six Nations or England Saxons squads today, the chances to force their way in are rapidly receding.
Lancaster has been having a run of bad luck with injuries – in the couple of weeks Ben Morgan (Number 8), Courtney Lawes (lock) and Ben Foden (full back) have been crocked. Manu Tuilagi (centre) has been out for months and will now not make the Six Nations. This is not just random dastardly luck – rugby union has a major issue with far too many matches in the calendar, weary and part-injured players playing on when they should be resting and the phrase ‘career longevity’ rapidly becoming a contradiction in terms.
Rugby is a funny old game and in its modern form (I’m talking strategy and tactics) has several confusing and frustrating elements.
The ball doesn’t get put in straight at scrum-time.
The influx of instinctively astute rugby league coaches has made defence not only a key feature of … er … defending your own try-line, but actually dominating and stifling the life out of the opposing team’s attacking ambitions right back as far as their own 22, via what is termed ‘aggressive defence’ (rushing up quickly and cutting down the time the attackers have to create their ‘go-forward)’.
The kicking game has tended to become aerial ping-pong as – often when they’ve run out of attacking ideas that patently aren’t working – fly halves and others hoist the ball in the air, which is then chased hard by everyone in the vicinity in an attempt to pressurize the opposition catchers into knocking-on, failing to catch, or even make a horlicks of their clearance kick or attempt to mount an attack of their own.
Outstanding playmakers in positions 9 and 10 – and midfield backs who can regularly penetrate the opposition defensive line by elusive trickery and/or sheer brute force – are at a huge premium in international rugby because there aren’t many of them around.
So today will Stuart Lancaster be a roundhead or a cavalier in picking his squad?
All the history points to a midway solution. He and his coaches seem excellent at identifying new talent, but less good at giving it a run of matches and allowing it to find its feet on the international stage. One small slip-up and the debutant is dropped like a hot potato.
By nature Lancaster, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree are conservative (with a small ‘c’) to the core.
The truth is that we pundits and fans will all be disappointed today.
Why? Because about 97% of the squad named will spring no surprise. There might be one or two bolters, but they won’t be potential first team starters when push comes to shove.
England has to put down a marker for the RWC by winning the Six Nations this year. Failure to do so will be a disaster. By the equivalent period before the 2003-winning England squad was winning Six Nations titles for fun and also seeing off Southern Hemisphere opposition.
Lancaster’s boys are way off that, of course, but a Six Nations Grand Slam would be nice and possibly give momentum and a glimmer of a 40% to 50% chance of winning the RWC 2015.