Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Peter Bills: Kids aren't alright for coaches in today's game

There's one group of rugby players you'll hardly catch a glimpse of at this World Cup.

Exciting, keen, enthusiastic youngsters are an endangered species at this tournament. Rugby World Cup 2007, whatever the outcome, whoever eventually lifts the Webb Ellis trophy, will go down in history as an event that was dominated by older players.

Defending champions England have a stack of 30-somethings in their squad. The likes of Mike Catt, Jason Robinson, Simon Shaw, Lawrence Dallaglio, Mark Regan and numerous others will offer not just experience but immense physical power.

South Africa will again wheel out the ancient Os du Randt, now 37, in their front row. Australia have those veteran half-backs George Gregan and Stephen Larkham while Ireland have another long established half-back pairing in Peter Stringer and Ronan O'Gara.

Trawl through the names in just about every squad from a leading rugby playing nation at this World Cup and you'll hardly find any youngsters, kids seen as the future. They're nowhere in sight for two major reasons.

The first is that most young players of 20 and 22 do not have the physical capacity to handle the modern game. The players are huge - look at the gargantuan South African pack and the big, physically imposing French three-quarter line that kicked off the tournament last night against Argentina in Paris' Stade de France.

Young players not physically able to handle that power would be smashed to pulp in such company.

And the second reason why so few promising youngsters for the future are in France for this World Cup is that no modern day coach is willing to take a gamble on them. The coaches are under searing pressure for their jobs (well, except Eddie O'Sullivan who was recently handed a 5-year extension to his contract whatever happens at the World Cup).

New Zealand coach Graham Henry knows he will either be pilloried if the All Blacks again fail to land the biggest prize in world rugby or deified if they take the trophy home for the first time in 20 years. The stakes are enormous and with such pressures on the coaches who can be surprised that they're not willing to slip a few kids into their squad for the future ?

Should we be concerned at all this? I think the answer is yes. For a start, the immense physicality of the game nowadays means that it is no longer a game 'for all shapes and sizes' as rugby used to be known down the ages. If you're not a strapping 6 feet, 15 and a half stone centre these days, you will get hammered by the massive opponents coming at you. And without that sort of size how could you expect to break a rock solid modern day defence ...

All youngsters only really develop if they get the exposure to a higher level. That applies to fields well beyond sport. But nowadays, winning has become the only thing in professional rugby and therefore, you can't take a chance on a youngster no matter how promising he may seem.

It's the price we are paying for this mania of winning at all costs, and the pressures of a Rugby World Cup. So we have to hope that the 30-somethings can still entertain us, still race around like greyhounds and still offer a thrill and excitement. Because if all we're going to see at this World Cup is huge men smashing each other in every game, it's going to be strictly limited entertainment.

Oh for a Geordan Murphy to light up a field, to spark the imagination.

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