Autumn internationals have shown the value of thinking clearly under pressure | Ugo Monye

Several matches have been decided by players not knowing laws of the game – there’s no excuse for that at this level

With two matches of the autumn internationals to go, what has struck me most about the last month is the small margins – just how many matches have gone down to the wire and ultimately been decided by clarity of thought. The number of times I’ve seen teams unable to show the necessary level of clarity has shocked me and it’s something that really has to improve between now and the World Cup.

Go back to the start of the autumn and Scotland against Australia. It wasn’t a great game, neither side was dominant but why was it that Nic White knew the lawbook inside out at the end and Scotland just did not see it coming? White knew exactly what he had to do – get the ball off the field come what may – but where was the clear thinking from Scotland to get players on the boundaries of the field to make it so much more difficult for him?

Last week, it was Wales against Georgia. Wales had a scrum about 30 metres out and judging on how the set-piece was going they had to get the ball in and out and at least give themselves a fighting chance. Where was the leadership group getting together and making sure everyone was on the same page? The scrum had been under pressure all match but if that conversation took place then the execution was not there and they ended up losing the match. What it needed was a quick strike and Taulupe Faletau to get the ball out from the second-row’s feet. It’s something that Japan have done so well when they haven’t had dominance.

And in England against New Zealand, when Marcus Smith was lining up the conversion at the end, was there a conversation about what to do when receiving a short restart? Judging by the contrasting reactions of the players – some were stunned, some were relieved to take the draw – it didn’t happen. And after that there was Ireland against Australia. The Wallabies kicked to the corner at the end, a bold decision, but at what point did anyone tell the backs that when you join a maul you cannot go ahead of the ball. Backs rarely get involved in mauls and are not necessarily expected to understand the law. But at that critical moment, was there a conversation to underline a simple law or message? Ultimately it took away a huge chance for them to beat the No 1 side in the world.

What sticks in my mind was when I was playing for Harlequins, Nick Evans would always trumpet on about being a student of the game and he made us a much better team because of it. We talk about using peripheral vision but it’s also about expanding the bandwidth of your rugby intellect. It’s not just how much you can see and absorb, it’s about how much you can understand and anticipate.

Australia and Ireland in a scrum during their autumn international in Dublin.
Australia passed up the opportunity to beat Ireland at the death in Dublin. Photograph: Ben Brady/INPHO/Shutterstock

And you have to know the laws of the game. It’s inexcusable at this level to come up short in that regard and the better you understand the laws the better you understand the game because you can manipulate it. We saw it with Italy’s “Fox” tactic against England a few years ago and we’ve seen it when France deploy Antoine Dupont – seemingly offside when they kick deep – but actually perfectly legal provided the receiver has run five metres.

I appreciate that there are so many different scenarios to plan for but ultimately it comes down to how players are being prepared in training. We’re seeing it happen so often – I’m convinced we’ll see another example this weekend – so coaches have to make it second nature for their players. When the pressure is on and the match is there to be won or lost and you’re fatigued, the clarity of thought and the execution of those thoughts are paramount as we have seen in so many matches across the autumn. It’s the same in the Premiership at the moment with so many matches going to the wire and I’m hoping that because of how the competition is structured now it will benefit our players.

It’s a mental skill and it is about repeatability – like any other skill. Every player needs to have the ability to play under pressure. England played with the most freedom with the last eight minutes when there was more jeopardy of them losing the match than there was all autumn. That should have been the most pressure they were under but they needed the freedom that came with having no option but to go for it to actually perform.

I call it the penalty advantage mindset. When you have advantage, all of a sudden players can see much more clearly. They attack that little bit more. I understand the point is that you get another go at it but if you can train an individual, a team, a unit to play with that penalty advantage mindset, that is the golden goose. Finn Russell has a penalty advantage mindset. He cares whether his team wins or loses but it won’t affect his next action. If you can feel comfortable in an uncomfortable situation and play with freedom and execution, that’s a great place to be and whoever can master it the next nine months puts themselves in a fantastic position going into the World Cup.


Ugo Monye

The GuardianTramp

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