Mounting pressure on national team coach not for the faint-hearted

Mon, Mar 4, 2013, 00:00

On Rugby:I want you to imagine you are the head coach of a national rugby team. In the past few months you have sacked a legend as captain. The greatest player your country has ever produced wanted to remain as captain but you went against conventional wisdom and removed him.

You appointed a potentially excellent captain, who is without doubt the future leader of the national team. Many wise observers thought your decision was flawed as it was not the right time to change leadership.

Then your outstanding outhalf was injured. You repeat your behaviour on the decision-making of the captaincy. Once again you ignored the proven champion.

Your reputation as a coach rose on the back of extraordinary performances from this player. His skill and tactical excellence have won you Heineken Cups and a Grand Slam. You have coached this champion for close on 20 years. Despite this you ignore him and select a highly talented 21-year-old for his first cap.

After this decision, whatever personal relationship you had with the champion is effectively over. You knew your decision would humiliate him. You did not want this to occur, as you deeply respect him, but you had to do what you believed was right for the team.

You gave the 21-year-old the goal- kicking responsibilities, yet he has not kicked for his club for several months. You know that points from goal-kicking are crucial in the success or failure at international level. The kid is the future but many question your decision as they believe he is not ready to be the general your team desperately needs.

Unrelenting pressure

In the past, what the media have said did not affect you. Lately, deep in your heart, you have been questioning if the years of unrelenting pressure have affected the quality of your decision making. This concerns you deeply.

Your team is trying to play a high-tempo passing game. It is a style that reflects the national spirit. It is positive and attractive to watch. When the team get it right it is a wonderful thing to behold, but over the last three seasons they have played to their potential only in smatterings.

In the most recent game your attempted match plan was met with great bravery and courage by the opposition but their tactics were powered by unmitigated negativity. The officiating turned the match into a drudgery that penalised the positive and rewarded the negative.

Despite this, your team did everything to win but score points.

The young outhalf played very well on debut but, in missing easy points, his very creditable performance was drowned in an ocean of criticism of his goal-kicking. Your decision to select him was ridiculed.

Your captain took a calculated gamble. He talked with his lieutenants and rolled the dice. He declined penalty kicks and attacked. As the Americans say, the dice came up “snakes eyes”. Those in the cheap seats, whose character would fry in the white-hot intensity of Test match rugby, sipped on their beer and criticised you with venom.

Great leader

You understand captaincy is a skill. Like any skill, leadership is developed over time. Your captain made a call, that with hindsight he regretted. Hindsight is a luxury Tests matches do not afford. You know he will learn from this lesson and, in time, he will become a great leader.

All of this is not helping you today. The future is not your task. Your job is to win games now and that is not happening.

You live or die by the decisions of those you select to play the match. It is obvious that those decisions are not going well and rugby people are saying you have got a lot wrong. You sense a change in the dynamic. At a critical point perception becomes reality. The perception was always you were the master of your environment.

Now that perception has disappeared.

You understand the coaching maxim. When you become the media story for winning, look for a contract extension. When you become the media story for losing, look for a new job.

There is a feeling of unease sitting low in your belly. It is not pleasant. It’s hard for you but it’s harder for your family.

You detest and resent their pain. The media are relentless in their speculation and innuendo. Despite all your efforts you know the unease will seep into the players and the team. At this week’s press conference you know the media are going to hammer you about keeping your job. After everything you have given to the game you don’t deserve this.

Now a horrid type of voyeurism has sucked you into the heart of just another crappy reality show – the blood sport of watching professional coaches fight for survival in losing teams.

All you can do is prepare to make the tough decisions for the team’s next 80 minutes. It could be the 80 minutes that rescues your career or maybe it’s already too late for that. Time will eventually tell.

Aren’t you fortunate that you are only imagining this scenario?

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