There was a moment in the match between England and Fiji that any self-respecting coach could use as the prologue to their instructional manual. It was the supreme and unforgiveable example of a player squandering a try through sheer selfish, dull-witted ignorance.
The situation occurred early in the second half. England won a quick ruck ball on Fiji’s line and Danny Care did well to shovel the ball quickly out to Dan Cole. Care’s pass was not a thing of beauty but a recognition that time was of the essence.
When Cole received the pass five yards from the line he had five players outside him, several of them backs. There was one or, at a stretch, two Fiji defenders. Cole looked to his right, ignored the five men outside him, put the ball under his arm and drove at the line. He was held up by the scrum-half, but we shall hold up Cole.
There was absolutely no excuse for the prop’s behaviour. He cannot have been knackered because the incident happened soon after half-time. You saw him have a look, so Cole had to know he had men outside.
It was just pure bloody small-mindedness. It was an indictment of Cole’s school coach, his Leicester coach and his England coach. Moments after that incident Stuart Lancaster replaced Joe Marlar, but England’s coach should have taken off Cole, to set an example.
This sort of thing is a blight on Northern Hemisphere rugby, although the French tend to be less culpable. In the match between Scotland and New Zealand Geoff Cross did a similar thing to Cole, although not quite as glaring and Justin Marshall went beserk on commentary.
Marshall said: “Numbers. Ooooh. I’m sorry. You’ve just got to wonder as a back. Geoff Cross, you are the wrong man. Ball in the hand when you’ve got a four man on two overlap and he tucked it.”
The Southern Hemisphere coaches and players don’t tolerate this sort of thing from their front five forwards and as a result it happens far less frequently. But the northern hemisphere is so obsessed with bashing the ball up into contact that front five forwards are not bawled out in the same way. Even the British commentary was much more forgiving of Cole than Marshall was of Cross.
But it was not always this way. Back in 1971 my father compiled an instructional book initially titled ‘The Lions Speak’ and subsequently re-released as ‘How We Beat The All Blacks’. The very first chapter is by Ian ‘Mighty Mouse’ McLauchlan, a prop forward.
He says: “In all aspects of loose play props must be as alert as any member of the team. They must also run around the field thinking. Because in the modern game it is as likely that front row forward or second row forward will find himself in an open situation involving a running attack. When we look at the skill factors involved in running, catching and handling a ball there aren’t very many that are very difficult. Basically – eye on the ball, hands out ready to catch or deliver the ball to a member of the same team.
“I would like to give you some food for thought just as a finish. The demands on the modern player are great, but I think that we should be demanding more in the skill region from the front five. Most can scrummage well, and can ruck and block and do their other jobs. But it is only the fringe skills, i.e. running and handling the ball, in which most are weak. So let’s put the demands on them that they are as good at handling and running with the ball as any other member of the team.”
Mighty Mouse had those thoughts 41 years ago. Nearly half a century later his compatriot Cross and England’s Cole are behaving like men from the Stone Age. And please don’t give me any tired clichés about thick props. Ray Mcloughlin, Mike Burton, Fran Cotton and many more have been far more successful businessmen than their light-footed colleagues in the three-quarters.
There is no excuse for what Cole and Cross did at the weekend. Cole had a terrific match other than that aberration, but I would have pulled him off just the same. It would have made the point to the team. Our expectations of the front five are that they can recognise a numerical advantage as clearly as a back. It’s not exactly rocket science. In fact it’s the sort of mental arithmetic that you would hope a five-year-old could master.
We as coaches need to make sure that all our players can add up.