“Charles T. Munger, Berkshire Hathaway’s vice-chairman, and I really have only two jobs. One is to attract and keep outstanding managers to run our various operations. The other is capital allocation.” – Warren Buffett
The Mole is old enough to remember when Jimmy Davidson was coach of the Irish team. The squad used to train in the afternoon and it was possible to watch the sessions when school was over. One thing that sticks in the Mole’s mind from Davidson’s tenure was a session where Davidson was conducting a run through and getting involved in the mauling. In the middle of it! In his tracksuit, shouting at the international team, wishing he could play himself. It was great, though it seemed strange even at the time.
Those days are long gone. Clive Woodward’s England regime heralded then confirmed the introduction of specialist coaches for many facets of the game. This wasn’t revolutionary. Professional sports in the US, particularly in the NFL, had long had specialist coaches. Now it seems normal and the idea of Jimmy Davidson mauling with the national team, whistle in mouth, seems quainter than ever.
With a forwards coach, an attack coach, a defence coach, a kicking coach and the rest, the head coach’s job is akin to portfolio management, hence the Buffett quote. The coach must attract and keep outstanding coaches to run the various aspect of the team coherently. Secondly, he must pick the team – the allocation of capital.
The selection of the team is the coach’s main responsibility and the pressure is greatest with those teams that have the most talent because they have further to fall. Imagine being Graham Henry in the aftermath of Cardiff, 2007. Not an easy place to be.
The Mole is of the opinion that the best coaches are risk takers that get the alchemy of their team right. Paul Ackford’s article concentrates on Andy Robinson’s position as Scotland supremo (or is that just football?) and his history with England. The phrase “worm’s eye view” seems slightly pejorative when contrasted to Woodward’s “comprehensive overview”. Robinson’s big weakness is his selection decisions and there seems no doubt that he struggled with the edifice that Woodward left behind him.
The weekend’s results suggest that the best coach operating in the Six Nations is Warren Gatland, who has been successful in a number of different environments. Gatland has moved around but has always left his teams in a better state than he found them. His success with Connacht left him best placed for the Ireland job when Brian Ashton resigned. His difficulty with the blazers led to his departure from the IRFU before he pitched up at Wasps where he turbo charged a relatively small club to European powerhouse status. His return to Waikato resulted in them winning the Air New Zealand Cup before the lure of international rugby proved too strong and he took the Welsh job. Gatland won a Grand Slam in his first season and has the Welsh playing a style of rugby that looks capable of beating any team on their day.
Gatland’s legacy to Ireland? The 13 man maul was one; fake tan against the Springboks another but his selection of 5 uncapped players against Scotland in 2000, alongside the recall of Mick Galwey – although what Ireland coach didn’t recall Gaillimh? – provided the backbone of the noughties team. Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara, John Hayes, Shane Horgan and Simon Easterby all now seem like logical choices and sure-fire internationals. However, bringing in five debutants who all prove to be successes is an almost incredible strike rate.
Other coaches who dared to be different include the great Rod McQueen who took over a Wallaby team that had been beaten by the Springboks 61-22 in 1997 and turned them into World Champions just over two years later. Playing full back that day against South Africa? Steven Larkham, who went on to drop an outrageous goal against the same opposition two years later, while playing outhalf. McQueen rebuilt his team, dared to change things and was brave enough to let his leaders take charge.
Ian McGeehan and his 1997 Lions selection have gone down in folklore and a number of their team are among the greats but they weren’t back then – that tour was the forging of a part of their legend. Martin Johnson as captain, Tom Smith and Paul Wallace as props with Jeremy Davidson in the row, a number of rugby league returnees, Neil Jenkins at full back and Gregor Townsend at out half were all surprising decisions at the time. In hindsight it worked so well. Not only was the test series won but the squad crackled and snapped across South Africa.
In contrast, Declan Kidney’s Irish selections seem to hug to the old adage that it is more difficult to get out of the Irish team than into it. The best managers are part alchemist, able to construct a new team and replace an old one. This is true of the likes of Ferguson and Wenger in soccer as well. The postponement of the game against France means Ireland next play the Italians at home. That should be a home win and get vitamin C – confidence – flowing once more, but the run in after that is not easy. The vigour of youth may be what is required. He who dares Rodders, he who dares…