Brian Ashton: As English coaches are fired, Toulouse thrive on continuity

So three more Premiership directors of rugby have lost their jobs or been moved sideways – very much the trend in England these days.

Across the water in France, meanwhile, Toulouse have reached yet another Heineken Cup final. And what is the most striking factor in the Toulouse story? Continuity. Thirty years ago, when I visited the club as a young coach and saw the work of Pierre Villepreux and Robert Bru at first hand, it immediately struck me that they were building something of value. Since then, there have been only two head coaches: Jean-Claude Skrela and Guy Noves. It seems to me that they might be on to something over there.

Anyone who thinks they can explain the Toulouse phenomenon simply in terms of a large budget and an even larger squad is missing the point completely. By maintaining, with utmost care, the link between generations, they have created an environment in which players fulfil their potential and, by extension, a model for sustainable success. They do not always win, but then, what they do is not always geared towards the next game. What matters to Toulouse is the development of a knowledge-based culture rooted in a consistent approach to the solving of rugby's problems.

There are identifiable threads running through their style of rugby. Toulouse sides always create space in a wide variety of ways; they keep the contest dynamic by staying on their feet whenever possible (there is no tolerance of lazy go-to-grounders); they pass early out of the tackle; their support runners always come from depth; they attack space at close quarters with their trademark inter-passing, thereby turning slow ball into something much more threatening. We are talking about a collective mindset here, based on the thorough understanding that comes from a culture of "involved learning", as opposed to "dependent learning". There is far more to playing for Toulouse than turning up and following instructions.

This explains why, during last week's Heineken Cup semi-final victory over a dangerous Leinster side, they were able to seize the moment in the way they did. Weather conditions being poor at the start of the match, they did not make the mistake of trying too much too soon: instead, they were physical and confrontational in the forward exchanges, kicked at the appropriate moments and placed great store on their defensive organisation. But when the time was right, they moved up several gears and won the game in the space of a dozen minutes.

How did they sense this opportunity for a decisive upping of the pace? There might have been any number of factors: a drying pitch, signs of fatigue among the opposition, the identification of a weak point in Leinster's defensive set-up that was ripe for exploitation. The point is that it was recognised en masse, and it is this that marks the crucial difference between a team that is simply well-drilled and one that is also well-taught and well-coached.

This brings me back to game understanding – or, in too many instances, the lack of game understanding. I was speaking to a couple of international cricketers a few days ago, and they share my fear that in professional sport too much specialised attention from coaches inhibits players, stifling freedom of expression. I'm not suggesting that basic skills should be ignored, but there is a gulf between players who possess those skills in isolation and those who also appreciate how they fit into the overall scheme of things, how they might best be integrated for the benefit of the team as a whole.

What I love about Toulouse is their ability to go down any route on rugby's A-Z street map, taking the direct approach when available but sometimes cruising the outskirts or taking tiny little side roads as a means of reaching their destination. They are a courageous side physically: believe me, they are well capable of smashing their opponents.

But the thing that most distinguishes them is the courage of their philosophy. They ask a huge amount of their players, but give a huge amount in return. When I compare them with some of the clubs nearer home, it does not take me long to work out who has it right.


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk