Brian Ashton: Bath and Co left to rue a criminal lack of clarity with winning line in sight
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 16 October 2010
The opening round of the Heineken Cup did not quite produce the pyrotechnics we were anticipating with Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse playing on home soil, where so many visitors have found themselves in the middle of a serious firework display.
To use a metaphor Gavin Henson might recognise as he continues his new career, the cancan we expected was replaced by a slow, sedate waltz. Come back Stade Français and their owner Max Guazzini, the consummate rugby showman.
But there was, as ever, a theme to events, and by the time the Sunday games were completed, we were reminded of one of the great truisms in rugby: namely, that the moment of judgement is reached at the final whistle and not before. London Irish, who performed extremely impressively for so long against the hardened European campaigners of Munster, may well come to rue the lapse in concentration that allowed those eternally competitive Irishmen to score at the death and take a losing bonus point back to Limerick.
Wasps, meanwhile, battled valiantly against the odds in Toulouse and earned an opportunity to pour bucketfuls of cold water on the reigning champions. Agreed, the match-deciding penalty shot came from a wholly unnecessary flash of indiscipline that will not have gone unnoticed by the Toulouse coach, Guy Novès, and probably won't go unpunished either, but teams visiting this part of the world are rarely able to pick and choose the ways in which their chances arise. In the event, the penalty, taken as the clock ticked down towards time, was missed.
Down in Italy, the underdogs of Treviso were in a prime position to cause a real upset against Leicester, but allowed the Midlanders to sneak the result late on. Maybe we should not have been surprised at the eventual outcome: if there is any side in the top echelon of European rugby who always play for the full 80 minutes, Leicester are the ones that spring to mind.
If only Bath had held themselves together for the duration, they would have beaten Biarritz at the Recreation Ground the following day. Sadly for my old club, this was a classic example of a team losing their grip, their bearings and their sense of direction under pressure. They started confidently enough, scoring a fine try in the opening minutes, but the Basques, equipped as usual with a driving forward unit and benefiting from the imperious boot and all-round generalship of Dimitri Yachvili at scrum-half, worked their way back into the game. They may have gone about it in unspectacular fashion and it struck me while I was watching that certain Bath packs of old would never have allowed them to secure a foothold, but they knew what needed to be done to get the measure of this particular Recreation Ground vintage.
For all that, Bath should have closed out the game with a drop goal in the closing minutes. They had the field position and they had kickers available. What they did not have was the capacity to take the right decision, which was staggering. It's not as if this is some newfangled theory: after England's World Cup victory in 2003 – a win ultimately achieved because a number of players with complete awareness of the necessary process executed a particular set of skills that resulted in Jonny Wilkinson's famous late strike – the decisive drop goal has become commonplace and is part and parcel of most teams' armoury. Indeed, many sides prepare specifically for this eventuality.
For reasons best known to themselves, Bath chose a different approach – and went the same way as the All Blacks when they failed to take the drop goal option in their World Cup quarter-final against France three years ago. What on earth happened? Were the key players caught up in the emotional excitement of the moment? Did the lines of communication completely break down? Were they so convinced of their ability to score a try, even though they were playing a man short, that they lost sight of the position in which they found themselves? Only those directly involved know precisely how they fell victim to the wrong thinking at such a crucial moment.
All this reinforces the importance of the mental dimension in big-time rugby. For players to concentrate successfully on the task in hand – winning – two things must happen. First, they must show great attention to detail, to process and execution. Secondly, and this was sadly missing at the Rec, there must be a wider awareness, an accurate overview of the balance of the contest. Thinking clearly under pressure is every bit as vital as performing skills accurately under pressure. Probably more so at the very top end of the game. Ultimately, clarity is the thing that separates the successful teams from the also-rans.
Levein meets his no-win objective
It's not often that I dip my toe in the choppy waters of football, but I was startled by Scotland's approach to their European Championship qualifying game with the Czechs last week. The contrast with events at the Rec could not have been greater: Bath gave themselves a chance to win and failed, in spectacular fashion, to take it; Scotland travelled with no intention of winning at all.
Their manager, Craig Levein, stated publicly that his now notorious six-four-zero formation was not designed to pursue victory – an unusual way of going about things, to say the very least. He was spot on with his tactics and succeeded in his objective, for Scotland very definitely failed to win. If Craig was a banker, he'd probably be in line for a bonus.
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