England expects a heroic performance: No pressure then, Jonny

February 3, 2007

[Updated post] A new international rugby coach risks all by bringing back world-cup hero Jonny Wilkinson into a vital international match between England and Scotland. Wilkinson, sidelined by injury for several years, may be unable to meet the expectations of coach Brian Ashton and England’s supporters. The decision, regardless of Wilco’s performance, seems to place short-term gain over longer-term investment in his and England Rugby’s recovery to full health.


The original post anticipated the importance of Jonny Wilkinsono England’s prospects before a major international game. It had renewed relevance, as England faced the prospect of going out of the 2007 World Cup after the preliminary stage, in September 2007

The six nations rugby tournament begins this weekend, with matches in Italy (against last year’s six nations champions, France), England, current world champions (against Scotland), and Wales (against this year’s six-nations favourites, Ireland). All clear? Probably not unless you are a rugby fan already knowledgeable about the fluctuations in fortunes of the six national teams involved.

Leadership stories abound in these contests. In England rugby, for example, the current team still suffers from comparisons with World Cup victory through the on-field heroics of a team, and off field back-up largely conceived and marshalled by Clive Woodward (subsequently knighted for his achievement). The hero of heroes on field was, by universal acclaim, Jonny Wilkinson. After the world cup, England’s fortunes and Wilkinson’s health dipped drastically. The team, widely regarded as aging, had peaked in that last-gasp win. Sir Clive sets off on a personal Odyssey which takes him out of Rugby, into a top administrator for the forthcoming Olympic games in London, via a curious stay in the another sort of football (no, not Rugby league but soccer). The majority of the world cup winners are pensioned off. And, worse of all, Jonny Wilkinson suffered injury after injury.

On the coaching side, Sir Clive’s replacement Andy Robinson presided over the decline before paying the ultimate penalty (after a sequence of losses, and stout denials that his job was in danger). The chop came shortly after a super-coach was appointed to review such matters. The super-coach was Rob Andrew, an iconic former international, and ironically Wilkinson’s mentor and successful coach at the Newcastle Falcons team. Andrew brought in the new coach Brian Ashton prior to the six seasons tourney.

AS the BBC reported it

The BBC reported on the decision to play Wilkinson.

It will have been 1,169 long days. On Saturday, Jonny Wilkinson finally returns to action in an England shirt. Another Saturday way back in November 2003 was the historic moment when the Newcastle fly-half dropped the goal that clinched the Rugby World Cup against Australia in Sydney. From the peak of that iconic moment, Wilkinson has been plagued by a host of injuries.

The article provides a helpful and vivid graphic of Jonny, pinpointing no fewer than eleven body parts that have received medical treatment. Further details are provided of the injuries to the Wilkinson neck, shoulder, arms, knees, groin, appendix and (most recently) kidney.

Informed opinion is divided on the decision to play Jonny Wilkinson. Like many other rugby supporters I have an opinion that is considerably less well-informed than the various views expressed in the media.

Nevertheless, here’s what I think

The decision to play Wilkinson is foolishly courageous. Two risks have been balanced. The first is the risk of playing Wilko when he is less that prepared for his international return. The newly departed coach Andy Robinson argued that the risk would be too high. The other risk is that a good start today is important for England’s future as it will get the new coaching regime off to a positive start. So the win is vital not just short-term but longer term. The new coach does not argue this way, but insists that Jonny is ready and able to play.

I think we have an example of the Tarrasch leadership principle. The decision might have been made for one of several reasons: because the coach could select Jonny (he’s available), because he felt he had to select him (compulsion), or because he balanced the options are decided he wanted to select him (voluntary option).

I don’t think it’s the first of the reasons. Pre-match, the coach talks as if there’s no compulsion, and that he had taken an obvious decision (A non-brainer, in fact). Not sure I find that convincing. It seems more likely that Brian Ashton was all too aware of the pressures on him as coach to succeed, not just soon, but now, this weekend. This is particularly acute, as Scotland is not seen as among the strongest of the teams in the tournament. To lose today would set off the critics about England’s subsequent chances of success.

I don’t know how the gamble will turn out. I’m looking forward to finding out, and suspect the result will not be determined by a JW act of genius. I am more sure that Brian Ashton will take the credit or blame for the decision. Also, that the decision has weighed up the future of one of the team’s greatest possible assets and decided to risk that for a short-term gain. I’m with Andy Robinson on this, and will have to be convinced otherwise unless there truly is a heroic and magical performance this afternoon. No pressures then, Jonny.

Postscript: And so it came to pass

And so it came to pass that Jonny Wilkinson played a heroic and magical game. And played a great part in an England victory. And it will be written that a great leader off the field was justified in what I considered a foolishly courageous leadership decision. And am I therefore convinced that Brian Ashton’s leadership decision was ‘right’?

He was right that Wilco was ready to play at international level. Respect and credit for that. I’m still musing on the possibility that sporting leaders, like military leaders have to be prepared to put at people at risk to increase chances of achieving strategic goals, whether the goals can be justified or not. And that may differentiate such leaders from a lot of other people.