Ashton's great task: the gems of tomorrow

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton points to his office wall, and a photograph which shows the Bath centre Andy Higgins tackling an opponent into the back of beyond. "That was four days after Kate Howey, the Olympic judo medallist, showed him how to do it," says Ashton proudly. Like any good coach, he loves it when a plan comes together.

And the plan Ashton is currently working on is a grand one - nurturing the heirs to the World Cup-winners' throne. The former Bath, England and Ireland coach is director of the National Academy system, tasked with cherry-picking the best players at junior (16 to 19) and intermediate (19-23) levels and feeding them into the senior academy, who train alongside the full England squad.

The Rugby Football Union are spending £1.2 million a year (rising to £1.5m next season) on the programme, which is run from the University of Bath's impressively equipped Sports Training Village. There are two rugby pitches, an Olympic-standard gym, a 50m swimming pool and a 100m indoor running track. A battalion of coaches - including recent internationals Jim Mallinder, Nigel Redman and Dorian West - offer the 36 members of the junior and intermediate academies previously unheard of one-to-one mentoring and tuition.

Howey's dojo is also based at the university. The quizzical looks soon disappeared when she tossed a 6ft 8in, 19st lock over her shoulder while casually explaining the mech-anics of the throw. "Kate's got a trademark move which is like a dump tackle," said Higgins, who gave Leicester's Sam Vesty the benefit of his learning in the moment caught on Ashton's camera.

After the Junior Academy was launched last year, Ashton pushed for the intermediate version to ensure no talented player gets "lost" along the way. "We're in the business of creating future winners of World Cups," said Mallinder, who quit Sale to join the RFU in August.

Players can be nominated by 12 leading rugby schools, or be spotted in either the England age-group teams or the 14 regional academies, which are based mostly at the Premiership clubs.

Though rugby is the ultimate team sport, the accent under Ashton is on development of the individual. "This is the élite, and they all have natural finesse and flair," said Mallinder. "The only way to display them consistently is to work hard on the core skills."

While the Junior Academy meet during the school holidays, the intermediates' get-togethers run parallel with those of the full England team. Last Sunday evening, a group of 18 checked into their simple single rooms at the university for a two-day camp of skills sessions and informal meetings. Rising at 7am, the wannabe Jonny Wilkinsons had a conditioning session, followed by breakfast and a debrief of the previous camp.

During an informal lecture on nutrition with Dr Tim Weighman, ears pricked up at a question on alcohol intake. "If you must do it, a glass or two of red wine is OK," said Weighman. "But you're all professional sportsmen, aren't you?" Cue nods all round.

Out on the fields of Claverton Down, Mallinder conducted a smart and snappy session on handling: "Keep that ball out in front of you, please... Accuracy!... Good chat - get the ball when you want it... Give me 10 press-ups." Invited observers from the Romanian Rugby Union were taking detailed notes.

The day concluded with a mental-skills company, Gazing, preaching the value of ignor-ing unwanted distractions. "We were given a role-play of someone who had just lost a game and had to work out how to take the best out of that situation," said Higgins. The secret apparently is to stay in "the blue" and out of "the red".

Each coach is mentor to a relevant set of players; hence Mallinder, the former Sale and England full-back, takes the back-three men, among them the pacy Gloucester wing Marcel Garvey.

The Premiership clubs receive £10,000 for each National Academy player on their books, but how do they take to this extra tier of training? "We don't stride in there and tell the directors of rugby what to do," said Mallinder. "I spend plenty of time at the clubs, maybe taking a session on the high ball and cross-field kicks, or sitting down with their own academy coaches."

Last season, two teenagers - Newcastle Falcons' centre Mathew Tait and flanker Tom Rees from London Wasps - jumped from the junior to the senior academy, which includes the likes of James Forrester, Harry Ellis and Olly Barkley. But by Ashton's reckoning, more than half the junior and intermediate intake will fall by the wayside. "Look at England's World Cup-winning squad," he said. "There were 30 of them, aged 24 to 36 - that's an average of only two top players coming through each year."

There will be seven camps for the juniors and intermediates before the players feed into England's Under-19 and Under-21 Six Nations sides early in 2005. Mallinder and Redman will take the Under-21s, who won the Grand Slam last season, while Tosh Askew and West are in charge of the Under-19s. England have yet to catch up with New Zealand and South Africa. Ashton is aware that the French work intensively with their players up to the age of 19, the Scots have their Institute of Sports in Stirling, and the pioneering Australians have "spread their tentacles all over the world".

But the RFU's mastermind, who coached the senior team's backs to some spark-ling successes in 2001, is not in the business of mimicry. "I always say that if you copy anyone, you're already behind them. I'd rather build from the inside and discover through development what's most applicable to England.

The Intermediate Academy's session concluded with Ashton delivering theory and practical on the subject of "confrontational rugby". The key phrase was "there's no hiding place". It could be a catch-all motto for those aiming to be the best of England's best.

The academy life, all work and play

Andy Higgins, a 23-year-old centre, is one of 20 members of England's Intermediate National Academy, all of whom are with Premiership clubs. He has been a regular this season for Bath's first team. This is the story of the squad's rugby week.

Sunday: Arrive at Bath University's Sports Training Village for two-day academy programme. A couple of players are missing through injury, while two flankers - Leicester's Will Skinner and Tom Rees of Wasps - are on release from the senior academy. Anyone requiring treatment reports to the sports injury clinic.

Monday: Up early for a conditioning session in the fitness suite. Breakfast is followed by a debrief of the previous camp. Out on to the pitch for a combined decision-making and contact session with former England lock Nigel Redman and judo expert Kate Howey. Lunch, then nutritional advice from Dr Tim Weighman followed by handling session with ex-Sale and England full-back Jim Mallinder. Rehab and flexibility, then evening meeting with mental-skills specialist company Gazing. "A lot of the stuff would not be done at the clubs because they need to concentrate on the next game," says Higgins.

Tuesday: Four players - James Haskell, Will Matthews, Joe Bedford and Topsy Ojo - depart to join England Sevens training. The remainder join academy director Brian Ashton for a meeting on "confrontational rugby", followed by an on-pitch session to put it into practice. At a club this would mean restart and line-out drills; with the academy, the players concentrate individually on being direct, with power running and offloads. "There's a big emphasis on repetition of the basics so they become second nature," says Higgins.

Wednesday: Return to club - in Higgins's case, a short journey to the Rec. In fact, he may be back at the university, which is used by Bath for fitness and hydrotherapy sessions. In the afternoon, a full-team run to prepare for Saturday's match. A DVD drops through Higgins's letterbox, containing footage from a recent game when he was followed by a "player-cam". Mentor Damian McGrath - who works with Higgins and fellow centres Ryan Davies, Chris Bell and Nils Mordt - may turn up for a coffee and a chat.

Thursday: Day off. Academy coaches emphasise the need for proper relaxation. For Higgins, "a bit of shopping" or some PlayStation action.

Friday: Bath captain's run led by Jonathan Humphreys and/or travel to away match.

Yesterday: Match day, and a try against Saracens. "A lot of the 2003 World Cup team have stopped international rugby," says Higgins. "It's exciting to think that there's a chance of being at the next one in 2007."