6 May 2012

The Nemesis of English and French rugby - Alignment

Over the last few weeks, the same curious word has been popping up over and over again in rugby circles. So much so that eventuallly it sparked my interest and I decided that it could no longer be avoided!

Stuart Lancaster has mentioned it. So too have Wayne Smith and Graham Henry. Apparantly Clive Woodward even mastered it....but what is it?  More importantly, what does it mean?

The word so liberally bandied about is 'alignment'. The context being England and France's problem in achieving it.

The idea of alignment is to get domestic clubs and the international side on the same page. The result being that the players should be able to seemlessly move from one team to the other and back again, as the philosphy of playing style is the same or similar. So for example if England wanted to play a more expansive game (as has been indicated), then more and more sides in the Aviva Premiership would need to follow suit. That would mean Saracens would no longer be a kicking automation! The second point of alignment is simply increased access to International players during non international weeks.
Obviously the benefits of either is clear. One only need to look at a rather successful football side called Barcelona FC and the effect their shared philosophy has had on the Spanish national team in recent years as an indication of that. The problem in inducing this shared philosphy of style though is motivation.

Anglo-Franco Disease

New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have never really suffered from the problem due to the nature of how their professional system is structured, while Wales, Ireland and Scotland seem to have a good handle on it. It's predominantly and Anglo-Franco disease.

War of Attrition in English/French rugby
England's Premiership and France's Top 14 are extremely tough competitions. Leaving aside the farcical relegation situation which is engulfing the former..... theoretically, any side that finishes bottom of the log faces the prospect of relegation and all that it entails. That naturally can promote a physically draining 'survive first' mentality rather than 'heads up' attacking brand of rugby. Of course this can produce some pretty dour stuff at times and doesn't exactly lend itself to the higher paced/ skilled nature of International rugby.

But can you really blame the coaches? If you are surviving on a shoe-string budget...say half the wage capacity of a Leicester or Toulon...are you really going to start throwing the ball about like your Quade Cooper just because Stuart Lancaster or Philippe Saint-Andre has whispered some sweet nothings into your ear on the training paddock? I don't think so. You'll do what it takes to stay up.

Motivation for change?

So how can one motivate the powers at be at the domestic level to buy into the idea of alignment with the national team and is it even possible?

First of all, yes it is. Stuart Lancaster certainly thinks so too and according to the man he so desperately attempted to sign, Wayne Smith, it already has been achieved in the past.

Clive Woodward on speed dial?
During Clive Woodward's reign as England coach, Wayne Smith was standing on the touchline at Franklin Gardens as the Head Coach at Northampton. Naturally their paths crossed regularly. Smith recently said that where Woodward succceeded was that he gave him the 'motivation to fit in with his England programme' and that 'the work he did enhanced what Northampton were trying to achieve' while Northampton 'provided an environment for the England players to thrive in'.

In terms of the second meaning of allignement, further access, Smith said, 'We allowed him access and in return Clive made sure the players weren't flogged and came back to us in good condition on the Tuesday.'

 The Number One Challenge
It looks like this is going to be the main challenge which England and France will face over the next few years so don't be surprised to hear more about this curious word. Whether they succeed or fail in their task may define their tenures in the hot seat.

Personally I think Lancaster has a chance of pulling it off but he may need to take a leaf out of Woodward's book. He has shown his values and humility already, as well as a larger vision. That should get him onside with the coaches first of all. Full alignment may take some time though.

As for France, I don't think they have a chance in hell. Philippe Saint-Andre is so conservative in his nature and for me hasn't shown much vision in terms of what direction he wants the national side to go in on the field...let alone off it.

What do you think of the problem and are there any obvious solutions? Please comment with any ideas!


  1. Rule Brittania09 May, 2012

    Great blog you got here.

    I think it's going to be tough for Lancaster to achieve this. He can dream but realistically in the professional era...clubs are going to do what's best for themselves.

    The best he can hope for is to get more time with the players and get a good coaching team together.

  2. @ Rule brittania.

    Thanks. It's true that it's difficult but as I mentioned in the post, Clive Woodward (according to Wayne smith) managed to achieve it to some degree, so there is hope!

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