My kids have just taken up rugby, so rather than stand on the sidelines nattering with the other parents, I’ve decided to get stuck in and start coaching at the local club. If you want to take it seriously, this involves doing courses. Learning how to be a coach. So I’ve enrolled on the WRU’s entry-level coaching course, which begins in November. I’m really looking forward to it.
This evening, we learned of a coaching clear-out at Cardiff Blues. For those who listen to the Welsh rugby bush telegraph, this won’t come as a surprise. Rumours of Shaun Edwards joining the Blues as defence coach have been rife for months.
Iestyn Harris as backs coach is an interesting prospect. But it seems Phil Davies’ job is safe, for the moment. A tough home game against the European champions Toulon beckons this weekend, and if the Blues don’t manage to salvage a point from that, then their Heineken Cup campaign is pretty much over before Christmas, yet again. It’s a cruel game for everyone involved: players, fans, investors and coaches.
Coaches. The fall guys of professional sport. The scapegoats who are always shown the door first. They take the blame for the failure of their charges on the pitch, and also for the cowardice of the men who pay their wages. Strategy and tactics are their responsibility, so maybe it’s only fair that they should take the rap.
Even when they’re successful, they’re only as good as their last game. Look at Mike Ruddock. In 2005 he guided Wales to their first Grand Slam in nearly 30 years. A year later he was gone. He resigned, but those two words don’t really paint the full, gory picture of the circumstances of his departure.
What’s my point? It’s in the title, stupid. Coaches.
It’s the conundrum which has perplexed us ever since that re-birth in 2005. How on earth do Wales manage to be so successful on the international stage, and yet their regions are so (relatively) hopeless in Europe? OK, so the Ospreys and Scarlets have won the Celtic League a few times between them. But surely a nation that’s managed to win four Six Nations titles in the past decade should be producing domestic teams who can achieve comparable success? Obviously not. This question has troubled me for a long time, and I’m not the only one.
The obvious answer is supported by tonight’s news from the Arms Park. It’s about the quality of coaching. And, importantly, the resources available to the coaches.
Team Wales have been blessed with a settled, well-funded and resourced coaching set-up since 2005, and the investment has borne fruit year after year. Only injuries to key players have prevented us from being more successful during the intervening period.
On the other hand we have the regions, having to make do with the crumbs from Team Wales’ table. A few million quid between them in compensation for access to star players (the star players whose wages they pay, I may add), and not enough money to keep those stars from seeking to make a living outside Wales.
Some people argue that this top-heavy concentration of investment is necessary for the greater good of Team Wales. The regions are a means to an end, they say. That’s great, if you just like watching international rugby. If you want to see your local team doing well, then you’re shafted. If you ever want to see a Welsh side winning the Heineken Cup, dream on.
On top of that, we have three problems which compound each other:
Firstly, the lack of success in the Heineken Cup makes the job of being a Welsh regional coach very unattractive for top coaches from other countries.
Secondly, the regions are unable to afford to pay the salaries that the best coaches now demand, and the regions’ inability to hold on to talented players (again down to money) means that any new coach will be at an immediate disadvantage.
Thirdly, the standard of home-grown coaches in Wales is not good enough for regional rugby, let alone international rugby. Sure, we have Lyn Jones who’s led the resurgence at Newport (I refuse to call that team by any other name), Nigel Davies at Gloucester and David Young at Wasps, but even they would admit it would be massive step up for them to coach Team Wales at this point.
That leaves the backroom boys in Warren’s World. Rob Howley, Robin McBryde, Shaun Edwards and Neil Jenkins. All great at their particular specialisms, but again, none of them proven at international level. Rumour has it that Shaun is on his way to the Blues, to fix their leaky defence. Good luck to him. But it’s head coaches that we’re lacking here in Wales, and I can’t see how we’re going to fix that hole.
It’s the money, stupid.