Premiership undermining England future?
March 28, 2012
Bath youngster Tom Heathcote reels from a typically big hit in the Premiership © Getty Images
It was a slightly grudging Stuart Lancaster who entertained the rugby media to a debrief three days after the Six Nations Championship. And you could understand if he felt that ploughing through the ins and outs of his interim stint as England head coach was an inconvenience a reported two days before his final interview for the permanent position.
It might have been neither what he wanted to be doing nor, it might be judged, the 'done thing'. For one candidate to be given the air-time for his mission statement while another or others had no such platform was unfair. Given this golden opportunity, and despite putting it across as a prior appointment he had agreed to keep, Lancaster did not hold back. He flashed up a succession of slides on a screen in a Twickenham conference room to show he had the present and future of the England team under control.
As the RFU's head of elite player development, Lancaster should indeed be the first man you would ask about the current and future players. No one else should be as well placed as him to do as he did and list 63 players, 29 backs and 34 forwards, under the heading of 'The Future?'. Slightly confusingly, this was not entirely a group of prospects who had yet to be capped or had not been involved during the recent Six Nations and/or World Cup. For instance, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood were on the list alongside the 17-year-old Saracens blindside Maro Itoje. You would guess that Lawes and Wood consider they have already made it, rather than being long-shot prospects like Itoje.
Overall, with the Six Nations squad included, it added up to almost 100 players identified by Lancaster as potential participants in the 2015 World Cup. Casting such a wide net came in for criticism in some quarters of being too liberal and woolly. What concerned me about it was that among Lancaster's many prospects and those already in the Test frame, it was painfully difficult to find more than a handful whose predominant skill is subtlety or unpredictability. And one of the last people able to do much about that will be the England head coach.
The original idea of the regional academies was for them to be overseen by the RFU, who would run them under license. They could be based anywhere in the country but with the intent of covering every region (the clue, as they say, was in the name). As far as I can see they have become de facto club operations instead. The original Sport England funding has been replaced by joint investment from the clubs and the Union. The locations of the 14 regional academies are listed by the RFU under the names of 14 clubs, the 12 in the Premiership plus Bristol and Leeds Carnegie. And the national academies coached in individual and unit skills at Bath University by the likes of Brian Ashton and Jim Mallinder have gone.
So although a player will continue to start off with his school and county, the likelihood is he will have his attitude, skills and beliefs shaped by one of these 14 clubs. As he reaches the age of majority and rugby maturity they will play him or rest him or farm him out to a Championship or lower-division club as befits their needs. The only times the national side can say what goes is during the windows specified by the club-country agreement and the IRB Test windows.
This is not to suggest the Premiership clubs have any malign intent towards England, although the labyrinthine terms of the aforementioned agreement does emphasise the tensions that exist between the two parties. In an ideal world there would be no need for it. But the evidence of the Premiership, week to week, continues to be that it is too reliant on power over skill; that the players are at the risk of injury and burn-out at a young age; that the one-third of squads who are not England-qualified are getting in the way of those who are; that the fear of relegation stifles skill and positive thinking; and that while the logical thing would be for all England players to take part in the Heineken Cup each year, many of them do not because their clubs do not qualify.
Now, clearly, there are some upsides absent from the above analysis. Well-rehearsed and understood arguments such as the presence of someone like Nick Evans at Harlequins being good in some ways for the development of his English understudy, Rory Clegg. But the chance to limit a top player's number of matches to, say, 20 high-quality ones a year is a horse that bolted years ago. Factors such as the unstructured global season are beyond anyone's sole control in England. And this mistake is compounded by playing the regular Premiership season on and off for a nine-month grind; a set-up designed to suit club treasurers keen to coin in the home gates, not the players who gravitate understandably towards an attritional, low-risk style of play.
The Harlequins v Bath match last weekend was a case in point. Nick Abendanon's vision and invention bit the dust when he was injured making a defensive clearance. The flying wing Tom Biggs was clothes-lined by a prop. Bath's young fly-half Tom Heathcote went against the grain by attempting the odd break instead of a conservative option and ended up being flattened by a shoulder charge from Harlequins' Samoa flanker Mo Fa'asavalu.
Power, good; panache, bad. Next time will Heathcote run or kick? What will his club coach advise him to do? Bath's Sir Ian McGeechan told those of us reporting the match that such youngsters needed 'looking after' but other than penalising foul play I cannot see how this is being done by the Premiership. Blundering, brutal, late or marginally late tackles abound. Biceps get bigger and the weak are weeded out. The game has changed worldwide and fly-halves will never again enjoy the wind in their hair and freedom to sidestep of Barry John and those from his pre-professional era.
The 'line speed' and ferocious intent of defences are against them. But rather than limit this tendency in search of a multi-faceted national side to include and even celebrate the skill of a Dan Carter or Richie McCaw or Brian O'Driscoll or Shane Williams, the Premiership has gone enthusiastically with the flow. Gloucester are the most devout pushers of boundaries but they are off the pace in the league and were beaten at home last weekend by the more pragmatic Exeter. The musclemen and workhorses are winning.
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