Brian Ashton: Anything is possible if you play without fear

Tackling the issues
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The Independent Online

Much as I'd like to say that this season's Guinness Premiership has hit the ground running in the attacking sense, I can't pretend this is the case.

With the single exception of London Irish, who have secured both of the try-scoring bonus points registered over the opening three rounds of the tournament, it's not clear that anyone is running anywhere with a genuine sense of purpose. I'm not picking on the English club game for the sake of it, but the majority of the rugby I'm watching at the moment comes from the Premiership, where ambition has been in short supply.

Bold, imaginative attacking play does not automatically go hand in hand with a lack of defensive proficiency: London Irish have the third best defensive record in the country, so any notion that the two disciplines are mutually exclusive is flawed. We are talking here about a team who have developed, and committed themselves to, a set of values they feel will help them make the best of themselves. In short, they are playing with a positive mindset.

How often do we hear modern-day coaches talking about "field position", as if territorial advantage is the only thing that matters. Agreed, it's generally better for a team to play in the opposition half rather than their own, but if this is the overriding philosophy how many attacking opportunities are being ignored? Surely there is some potential reward in attacking from 60 metres when the chance presents itself, not least because opponents are likely to be less switched-on defensively. Without naming names, it seems to me that some coaches actively discourage their players from taking this kind of chance.

Over the years, I've thought long and hard about the key elements that underpin the kind of rugby I believe to be most effective in winning matches at the top level, and they come under four headings. The first is what I call the "whole pitch approach". Once you remove the inhibitions that people inevitably develop when they are told they can't do this or that in a certain area of the field, they begin to regard a game as a series of opportunities rather than threats. Why shouldn't they attack from 75 metres, just because they're only three points up in the last few minutes of a big game?

Secondly, teams must adopt a "play to score" mentality – not only when they have the ball, but when they're without it. I have long believed that it is possible to defend with a view to scoring, usually by identifying turnover opportunities but also by concentrating aggressively on certain players who might be susceptible to mistakes in contact. Thirdly, I'm a great believer in "attacking space", either by running into it, driving into it or kicking into it.

Here's an off-the-wall fact for you: given that a rugby pitch covers 7,000 square metres and each of the 30 players takes up a square metre each, along with the referee, there are 6,969 square metres of free space at even given moment – enough to hold 191 double-decker buses. (Yes, I've done the calculation). Of course, rugby is a game full of movement, played by people who are fit, fast and capable of closing down space extremely quickly. But provided the ball is passed or kicked correctly, it still moves at a greater speed than the most rapid wing, let alone a prop forward.

The final ingredient is the "paradigm shift" – the ability to work out what the other side expects of you and then do the opposite. Muhammad Ali, my sporting hero, was a master of this, his famous world title victory over George Foreman being the most obvious example.

I might also use the example of the former coach of the Australian cricket team, John Buchanan. I remember him giving a talk before the final Ashes Test of 2005, during which he was asked how he made an impact on a dressing room full of outstanding players when he himself had not played at their level and had failed to win a trophy while working with Middlesex. Was there not a credibility problem? He replied that he challenged the side to change the very nature of Test cricket by scoring at a rate of 4.5 an over. Sure enough, they took up that challenge and became one of the finest teams in the history of the game.

Too often, coaches tell players that an attacking approach of the kind I have described is "too risky". I have an inkling that this serves as an excuse for lazy and indifferent coaching. If the technique is sound and the fear factor is removed, most things are possible.

Wilkinson enjoying la différence

It will not have escaped the notice of rugby followers in England that Jonny Wilkinson is making an impact with Toulon in the French Top 14 tournament. I'm delighted for him, not least because, having lived through an injury nightmare since the World Cup-winning year of 2003, he deserves a run of luck.

Of all the English players who have crossed the Channel, it seems to me that Jonny made his move at the right time, for the right reasons. He has travelled to Toulon with an open mind, keen to spend time in different surroundings, speaking a new language and soaking up a new culture. He will be the better for this new experience, and so, possibly, will the England Test team.