Brian Ashton: A great man once told me never to play by the rules

Tackling the issues
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Will Greenwood, one of the more constructive English rugby players of the professional era, is a television pundit these days, and one of the phrases he used in respect of the Sale outside-half Charlie Hodgson during the Heineken Cup game at Harlequins last weekend struck a chord with me.

He described Charlie as a player who was "happy to go off-script when he thinks the situation calls for it", or something to that effect, and it went a long way towards explaining why Quins found their opponents such a handful, even though they were the ones playing at home.

Going back a few years – decades, probably – I remember the great French coach Pierre Villepreux talking along similar lines. One of his favourite sayings was "play with your eyes", by which he meant "don't play it by the book, but play according to the things happening around you". Charlie is an excellent example of someone who does things the Villepreux way. It is not an easy art to master, even though one of the things the best practitioners have in common is their ability to make rugby look as simple as falling off a log. What separates people like Charlie from other midfielders? In essence, they have the advantage of being natural games players.

What does this mean? In my view, such individuals have developed all the necessary technical competences to such a level that their mastery allows them the precious commodities of time and space. Very often, these people have a languid air about them; indeed, some of them appear almost disinterested. Daniel Carter, the New Zealand outside-half, is the ultimate in this regard: even when under the most intense pressure – especially when under such pressure, actually – he is able to make sense of the maelstrom with a bare minimum of fuss and bother. Others flounder in confusion, he prospers in his clarity.

Charlie would have been no older than 16 when I first marked him out as an unusually talented player. He stood out from his peer group in his ability to sense the tiny shifts of balance in a game, appreciate the range of options available, weigh them up quickly and respond in the way that would best help his team take the most positive course of action – always with more time and space than appeared to be available to others. I remember thinking to myself: "Crikey, how am I going to present this bloke with worthwhile challenges on the training field?"

It was interesting to hear Will talk about him, because Will himself was another from the same mould. He too was a natural, something inherited from his father Dick, who also played international rugby for England. Whenever I was on the same field as Dick, he seemed to me to be hovering above the pitch, looking down on the rest of us and reading the game from on high, almost three-dimensionally. Will was equally blessed with this ability to sense the shape of a contest and, being a dynamic communicator into the bargain, he was of incalculable value to the side that won the World Cup in 2003.

My point here is that there is no reason why a side should have only one or two such players, and this is where good coaching can be of help. If we spent less training time concentrating on "drills", which encourage robotic learning, and put more of our effort and intuition into games-based preparation, which encourages dynamic learning, we might see more people following the Villepreux dictum and "playing with their eyes".

It strikes me that Leinster, the current European champions, take precisely this approach to their rugby – something that underpinned the exceptional quality of their first-half performance against Scarlets in Llanelli a week ago. They have made great strides in recent seasons, developing a harder physical edge while refusing to compromise on their determination to play positively and do things differently.

Leinster's game is based on intent: to obtain quick ball, attack space and kick with purpose. Against Scarlets, this was beautifully orchestrated by a player I know well from my Bath connections, the outside-half Shaun Berne. He is the kind of player who, in a quietly effective fashion, makes those around him perform better; certainly, there were a number of very good players down at the Recreation Ground, not least Mike Catt, who enjoyed the benefit of Berne's outstanding skill set and command of technique. To my mind, he is one of the smart signings of the season.

Teams must put their minds to stopping violence

Talking of Heineken Cup affairs, there were sorry outbreaks of violence and controversy in a couple of matches last weekend, hence all the activity from citing officers and disciplinary tribunals in recent days.

What was the principal cause of this kind of behaviour? I have a suspicion that much of it came down to an incomplete understanding of what has become known as the "high-performance model".

There are four key elements to the top sportsman's make-up: technical, tactical, physical and mental. Most leading performers in any sport will say that when push really comes to shove, the defining one is the last.

Yet far less time is spent developing and improving this aspect of an individual's make-up than on any of the others, which seems just a little crazy.

Especially in a game like rugby, which is supremely demanding and often played in a frenzy of competitiveness, mental control is the glue that holds the performance model together in pressure situations.

If it is largely ignored by those in charge of team preparation, is it any surprise that a lack of clear thinking and a loss of self-control lead players to commit acts that are "stupid" and "idiotic", to quote some of the words that have emerged from an embarrassed Stade Français?