Rugby in 2020 has been fascinating when viewed through the lens of the coach: embattled, or fledgling, or desperate, or experimental.
Defence guru Shaun Edwards’ system works, but only with rabid aggression and elite boxer-level cardio. Wales for the last decade embodied Edwards’ thinking: implacable, hard, prepared and tough.
The French players will improve under Edwards’ baleful eye, but will he watch Teddy Thomas play matador for long, no matter how lovely Teddy’s attack looks? Desire and lungs matter a lot.
When can France achieve the Gatland-Edwards mega-level of fitness so that they stop losing the second half? Edwards’ brand of coaching seems universal in its effect. But the French player is a strange one; if any team is an outlier, it will be Les Bleus, as they could just reject the pain.
As for his former partner in crime, Warren Gatland, he has the Chiefs scrapping to make every phase of the game miserable. The apogee of Gatlandism was in the last World Cup semi final. Shorn of five, six, seven or more of their best players, the Welsh still made the champion Boks grind until all grinding was done.
In Waikato, Gatland is mining again, in the land of his roots. The early returns are handsome. The entire Super Rugby coaching fraternity surely looks up to him, and currently curses him before and after matches.
In South Africa, there is a parochialism few can imagine. That was the true feat of Rassie Erasmus, to meld the unions and expats, then find a unifying way and manner to play. But let’s be honest, he also turned the Boks into a team almost as fit as Wales, and used rugby physics to batter the batterers.
The result should be that all the South African provinces would copy the Jacques Nienaber defence and elevate the Erasmus philosophy of rampant honesty and accountability.
Yet, the two coastal teams seem the only ones to try: the ruthless 6-2, the nippy nine, the beep-test rush-umbrella, the smallish sprinter wing, the clinical counter-attack, the mastery of monster collisions, and the percentage play.
John Dobson and Sean Everitt (WP and Natal, respectively) are coaches’ coaches. They were brilliant in Currie Cup, but also at every junior and schools level, obsessed with teaching the Jake White way. They were not legends as players, Dobbo and Sean, but serious students of stats and sport psychology.
The Stormers and Sharks are playing the most like the 2019 Boks. The Bulls and the Lions simply cannot, with their stocks of cattle raided.
Think of picking a pack from this group now north: Franco Mostert, Lood de Jager, RG Snyman, Duane Vermeulen, Marcell Coetzee, the Du Preez brothers, Akker van der Merwe, Coenie Oosthuizen, Bismarck du Plessis, Francois Louw, and Vincent Koch. This is reality.
The return to basics
In Ireland, it looks like Andy Farrell has decided to go back to unapologetic power, and pick a captain as difficult as his son. They may notch a rare win at Twickers, because Eddie Jones has outstayed his sweet spot.
Jones is tinkering for no use. Why move the best seven in eons in England to eight, and struggle to get over the gain line when the scrum is going backward? His halfbacks, as a corps, will soon lose all confidence, generally.
It won’t settle Jones down that Erasmus is being floated as his (early) successor, even if that was just a trial balloon.
Wales’ new Kiwi mastermind, Wayne Pivac, has the offload mania. One too many and you’re back behind your poles.
In Australia, it’s judgement year for Brad Thorn and Dave Wessels. They’re good guys, but they need wins. That’s it. Affable, honest, hard-working they may be, but wooden spoons get coaches fired.
Fin de siecle
In Scotland, Gregor Townsend has lost the plot. The most talented rugby Scotsman has three beers on a night before non-training meetings, and missed the Powerpoint in the morning. Townsend has turned this into mutiny. If he loses to Franco Smith’s Italy, listen for the knives sharpening.