Rugby union still faces challenge to make skill match will at every level | Paul Rees

Paul Rees
Leicester’s George Ford passes to his team-mate Matt Toomua in a match against Harlequins’ that was lit up by both players’ sublime moments of creative passing. Photograph: Rex Shutterstock

Bridging the gap

The day after Eddie Jones had sat in one of Twickenham’s few largely unadorned rooms and reflected on how he would like to see training grounds for age-group rugby turned into skilling fields, he was over the road at the Stoop watching two players turn back time as they looked to unpick the defence’s lock rather than stick a shoulder to the door.

Jones saw his England outside-half George Ford operate in tandem with his inside-centre, the Australian Matt Toomua, Leicester’s marquee player who missed most of last season with a knee injury he sustained in his second appearance for the club. It was Ford’s sharp pass to Greg Bateman that fooled defenders which put the prop in from 30 metres and it was Toomua’s long, directed pass to Jonny May that allowed the wing to exploit his pace advantage over his England squad colleague Marland Yarde.

They were simple, highly effective plays in what has become a typically open game in the Premiership but the overall effect in increased ball-in-play time and the more expansive play of teams is to highlight skill levels that all too often do not flicker above the ordinary. Skill does not yet match will was the theme of Jones’s media session at the end of last week as he reflected on a swift impact of professionalism that has endured.

The improvement in defensive skills, a legacy of the widespread recruitment of coaches from rugby league, has not been matched in attack, except in New Zealand where this decade players coming through the age-groups have been coached in basic skills before they bulk up in the gym or get involved in set-piece sessions. The benefits of that were highlighted in the early weeks of the Lions tour in the summer when many of the home teams were able to pass their way out of trouble while the Lions blew try-scoring opportunities by careless or clumsy passing and poor lines of running.

It had, said Jones, nothing to do with talent and everything to do with the time, or lack of it outside New Zealand, spent on injecting young players with creative skill. “New Zealand have sacrificed winning the junior world championship over a period of time because they don’t coach the set-piece,” he said. “They say individual skills are more important because we can pick up the set-piece when they are 21. So they go into those World Cups under-prepared in scrum and line-out, and when you are less organised you have less chance of winning.”

As Jones was watching Ford and Toomua’s burgeoning partnership take another step towards mutual understanding, he also had an eye on Marcus Smith, the 18-year-old Harlequins outside-half who the previous day had been named in the squad for England’s training camp in Oxford this week. Smith had a different player to Toomua outside him, Wales’s Jamie Roberts, who after stints on the wing and at full-back established himself as a 12 on the Lions tour to South Africa in 2009.

Roberts, bigger than most second rows were when Jones started playing, found himself used principally as a gainline breaker, head down and charge, and found himself dropped to the bench by Wales last season, and overlooked by the Lions, because they were looking for a different type of 12. It was not that he lacked natural aptitude: it had never been exploited at a time when risk-taking was frowned on and it was too late to start.

Toomua is the typical second-five New Zealand, especially, and Australia produced in abundance over the decades. It was 40 years ago when Carwyn James warned of the dangers of what he called crash-ball centres, players who were being encouraged to feel rather than think. “The boring, unthinking coach continually preaches about mistakes,” he once said. “The creative coach invites his players to make mistakes. This new midfield ‘crash-ball’ is a disaster - hunks of manhood with madness in their eyes, battering-ram bulldozers happy to be picked off on the gain-line by just-as-large hunks from the opposing side. For what? Just to do it all over again.”

James was writing during the amateur days when there was no financial pressure on coaches to keep their jobs. “There is more pressure at that lower level to win because people are employed to coach young players and therefore doing it for their living,” said Jones. “There is no lack of talent in England, but individual skills have to be more consciously developed at an earlier age. It is something you’ve always got to check and look at.”

In the latest issue of the British Medical Journal, two academics from the Institute of Health at Newcastle University, Allyson Pollock and Graham Kirkwood, argue that schools should ban harmful contact from rugby matches and training, namely scrums and tackles, as most injuries in youth rugby occur during “collision elements of the game.” They contend that rugby, along with ice hockey and American football, has the highest concussion rates and “under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 19), governments have a duty to protect children from risks of injury and to ensure the safety of children, which is why we are calling on chief medical officers to act now.”

There is an argument that first exposing players to scrummaging and tackling after their formative years is in itself a risk, but the safety issue offers the opportunity to place the greatest emphasis on skills at age-group levels. As the former England captain Will Carling said: “Instead of talking about banning tackling and scrums in rugby, talk about organising children in weight categories, not age; huge safety bonus.”

Make rugby fun and breed more Fords, Toomuas and Smiths while giving players such as Roberts the chance to show they are more than big and hard to bring down.

This is an extract taken from the Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly rugby union email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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