It is a common sight in rugby and football, with coaches passing on tactical messages


Should rugby clamp down on coaches as water carriers?

At the start of 2020, Japan’s attack coach Tony Brown wrote a column for Rugby World’s Future of Rugby issue. In it, he said: “As for innovations in coaching, it’s a really competitive environment now. No stone unturned. Tech could provide the way forward. 

“That could be using real-time data or it could be the ability to communicate with players on the field. If you could talk with players, kind of like the NFL, you ensure you’re executing the plan with precision, rather than at 80%. That could be the difference between winning and losing.”

But in 2021 the issue of getting messages on to players has come under scrutiny.

He may have been banned for two months from all rugby action (pending appeal) for criticising match officials during the British & Irish Lions tour, but Rassie Erasmus has in recent times also become the most famous water carrier in the global game. 

Some have suggested that this role has been taken too far, too. This week, Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend said of the Springboks director of rugby, days after South Africa’s 30-15 victory at Murrayfield: “I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, but someone showed me a video of him (Erasmus) making comments about one of our players, a character assassination or sledging or whatever. That’s not the role of coaches; it’s not the role of anybody on the sidelines to be doing that.

“If we want our sport to go down a different route then we allow these things to happen. That was really disappointing to see, and I know it wasn’t the only incident over the weekend, over that game.”

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Townsend has not explained the exact incident he is referring to, but as some commentators in South Africa have said, if it is about the targeting of one Scottish winger for aerial bombardment as he is “kak” under the high ball, they struggle to see the issue. Others are angry. 

But it is the wider narrative in the game that is interesting. Should we take exception to all water-carrying coaches or just those who cross a line?

The RFU’s guidelines for adult matches in England, at point 13.7.6, states: “No more than four water carriers per team (including medical staff and replacement players) are permitted within the pitch side or perimeter fencing or other barrier. Water carriers may only be permitted onto the playing area for the purposes of taking water to the players at such times as shall be approved by the referee (on any other occasion players must come to the touchline to get water).”

And teams all over take advantage of the opportunity to pass on messages. 

While Erasmus was a water carrier last week, for the Springboks, Scotland had assistant coach AB Zondagh and player Dave Cherry taking refreshments on. England have had Richard Cockerill doing it this November. During their victory over the All Blacks, Ireland had scrum coach John Fogarty taking water on. Sam Whitelock even requested the officials send him packing. 

At the start of November, referee Paul Williams also gave water carriers the hurry-up to get off the park during the Boks’ 23-18 victory over Wales. 

Some ponder whether there is a shortening level of trust for players to problem solve on their own over 40 minutes now. But in football, passing on tactical messages is a regular part of the game. So how do the two compare?


“I saw a little bit of coaching when I was down in Cardiff, at national team training sessions,” says football manager Neil Harris. “The interaction from the coaches to the players was key during sessions, and it surprised me them being on the pitch, mid-session. 

“It’s quite interactive in the session, and then come a Saturday they (head coaches) will be up in the stand, in a box, watching with the analysis guys. During the game, all I’ve known (in football) is shouting on the players, giving them information. Analysts watching further up, passing down information through the comms, gets to me and I pass on messages or my coaches pass on messages. We’re continuously adjusting as the game goes on, to the opponent, and making us better – or what we feel is making us better.”

What fascinates Harris, he says, is the ownership captains and senior players can display in rugby. He has seen captains deliver messages to his squad in captain’s runs. He adds, looking to the future: “We don’t see the same leadership qualities within a football changing room. That dynamic, we’d quite like to change. I would like to see more ownership, player ownership, in the changing room. But I still think that’s a few years away from happening.”

Largely speaking, this could represent more ownership of team meetings and analysis sessions. However there is no getting away from the fluid picture of formations and player traits you can see on an elite sports field. 

coaches as water carriers

Alan Pardew on the touchline for West Brom, 2017 (Getty Images)

For Alan Pardew, former West Ham, Newcastle and Crystal Palace manager, there will be on-pitch lieutenants you can trust to deliver any game plan you have hammered during the week. But he says: “Will you ever stop getting messages on? I don’t think so. 

Related: Is fly-half still rugby’s most important position?

“Because managers are egotistical, and they want to show the players that they’re in charge, so they’re not going to leave them out there. Even if you have the best lieutenant in the world, you’re still going to get a message to him, to understand that. So there’s an understanding of what’s going on in the game and you’re leaving.”

On whether rugby and football are travelling in different directions on the subject of passing messages on, Pardew isn’t convinced. But he adds that while rugby has always felt more communal in terms of team meetings, discussing tactics through the week between a coach and their player, maybe football is picking up there. 

He says “I think that development is only going to get better. 

“But I don’t see any problem in getting messages onto the pitch going forward, in rugby or in football for that matter. I just don’t see that. I don’t see any cheating involved in that. All you’re doing is making a tactical change that might influence the game. Where’s the deception in that?”

Are we making a meal of this, or is it time to seriously clamp down on the number of messages being passed onto the players?

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