The Prefects

Stuart “Retainer” Lancaster is going to interview this week for his job. If Lancaster was unknown before the 6 Nations, he is high profile now and even his main competition for the job (Nick Mallet) accepts that he’ll probably get it. There were low expectations surrounding England before the tournament but things look much rosier now.

Lancaster has done a professional job in the short time available. That his appointment was not anticipated at all three months ago stands as an indictment of people’s view of coaching. In order to produce better coaches, share knowledge and strive for best practice, rugby unions conduct coaching courses and award qualifications. Lancaster is a Level 5 coach, the elite grade. These ‘pieces of paper’ are mistrusted by the media and consequently the general public who prefer to ascribe semi-mystical powers of inspiration to their supremo; “the voodoo”. The voodoo makes for better copy than a treatise on box kicking.

There’s little doubt that Lancaster will be very well prepared for his interview with a good idea of what he expects, not only from his England team in three years, but who they will be. In his media briefing he is able to identify a number of players who should contend for a place in the England team of 2015 when they will host the World Cup.

More than that, his “rough projection” of the number of caps his team would have by that stage is 663 (give or take a few!). Which sounds like a piss-take, but is an interesting idea, one that is consistent with the notion of head coach as portfolio manager.

Graham Henry was headmaster of a large school in Auckland before becoming a professional rugby coach. His demeanour suggested that he was born for the role and in his latter four years at the helm, he appointed a number of boys as The Prefects. The chosen few were Brad Thorn (51), Richie McCaw (97), Kieran Read (30), Dan Carter (80), Conrad Smith (51) and Mils Muliana (95). The figures in parentheses are number of test starts at time of writing. When a big match came around, Henry always selected his prefects when available and rotated his squad around them. There are other notable players, such as Tony Woodcock (74) and Jerome Kaino (44), who had many caps and were in form during the RWC, but never qualified as prefects.

These six prefects have 404 starts after the RWC, leaving 256 starts between 9 players (an average of 28 starts) to bring the team up to the target allocation of caps. Obviously Mils and Carter didn’t play in the RWC final but I’ll use this as a theoretical allocation.

Taking 660 as a benchmark figure, it means that each player should have 44 caps on average in order for the team to have “enough” experience to win a tournament like the World Cup. When a team has very experienced players (with, say, more than 70 caps), the benchmark demands that younger players are introduced.

The idea of The Prefects suggests that a large amount of responsibility should be delegated to the players and they should take ownership of the side. The players should have a suitable level of experience, knowledge and ability. Watching ‘Living with Lions’ a good few years on from 1997, it was interesting how the squad set their own norms and rules under very specific headings before going on tour. The squad turned out to be very harmonious and the tour was successful with many of the test team coming from left field.

Is it right to benchmark everything by the RWC final or is your next game your most important one? Most countries will not have the strength in depth to win a World Cup so selecting a big match each season – for Ireland, the French game – makes logical sense.

We’ll look at the implications for Ireland later on [spoiler: we’ll suggest dropping O’Callaghan and O’Leary].

7 thoughts on “The Prefects

  1. Good piece Mole, I agree with the following point:
    “These ‘pieces of paper’ are mistrusted by the media and consequently the general public who prefer to ascribe semi-mystical powers of inspiration to their supremo”
    This is something that is extremely prevalent in soccer where a technician like Andre Villas-Boas can be usurped by a clamour for badge-kissing, bloodied & bandaged John Terry-populism. Arsene Wenger was also viewed with extreme suspicion when he arrived and only the fact he got immediate results saved him (it didn’t for Christian Gross who had to return to Europe to prove himself).

  2. Woodward had prefects too. If you take the English 2003 team, Johnson, Back, Dallaglio, Wilkinson, Greenwood and Lewsey were Woodward’s prefects. Lads like Woodman, Thompson, Kay, Cohen, Tindall all came into the team relatively late in the day, and Hill and Robinson were great players but not great leaders [like Kaino and Nonu, say].

    Woodward believed in his prefects so much that he picked as many of them as he could for the Lions first test two years later.

    He couldn’t pick Johnson, because he had retired after the World Cup, but he persuaded Back to come out of retirement at 36. He would have picked Dallaglio, even though he hadn’t played any international rugby that year, but he brutalized his ankle in the first game of the tour and was sent home. He couldn’t pick Greenwood because O’Driscoll was captain, but he was on the bench even though he was pretty washed up at that stage and didn’t play for England in the Six Nations. He picked Wilko out of position at 12 and Lewsey out of position at 14.

    Of those players, only Lewsey was playing regularly and well for England [none of them bar him had played in the 2005 6N], but Woodward had too much faith in them to see their age-related failings.

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