Brian Ashton: Borthwick's beer trip should sound last orders for rugby's pack mentality

Tackling The Issues
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The Independent Online

It was with mixed feelings, including a degree of disbelief, that I followed the Steve Borthwick saga as it unfolded in the early part of the week.

For those of you who missed it – and I can't imagine it gave too many rugby followers the slip – the incident was sparked by Steve's absence from the official launch of the Heineken Cup. Where was he? At the annual Munich Oktoberfest, on a "team-bonding" trip with his fellow Saracens. A leading player misses a function sponsored by a beer company to attend one of the biggest beer festivals in the world? There's a comic element to the story, you'll agree, not least because Steve is no one's idea of a boozer.

Of course, "Those Who Must Be Obeyed" failed to see the funny side, and as a result Saracens may be fined by the Heineken Cup board, despite issuing an apology within 24 hours. It is this whole "obedience" thing that interests me. We're told by Saracens that it was the club, not Steve, who decreed that he should travel to Bavaria. But Steve is a smart guy, and he would have foreseen the potential problems. Did it cross his mind to impress on Saracens that as he would be the one singled out for his non-appearance, it might be sensible to forgo the delights of lederhosen-clad bar staff and pitch up in Cardiff instead?

On a much more serious subject, did it ever occur to Tom Williams, the Harlequins wing who notoriously obeyed orders to bite on a fake-blood capsule, to refuse to participate in this piece of naked cheating and tell the management they should stick the offending object elsewhere in their own anatomy? It leaves me wondering whether teams are in danger of "unionising" the union game by insisting that their players show complete solidarity in following the party line.

This leads me back, albeit in a slightly oblique way, to the days when I was instigating and running the national academy, which had a simple, unashamedly elitist brief: to produce players capable of winning World Cups at senior level. "Elitism" was a dirty word in many areas of life at that time, including in my own field. In the club academy system, quality and individuality were considered less important than quantity and what I call "followership". Too many influential characters were suspicious of a philosophy of "singling out" in a team sport. They found it difficult to get their heads around the fact that my academy would have no fixture list; that some positions might not be represented in a particular intake; and that there would be no frowning on people who dared to challenge traditional modes of behaviour on and off the field.

Some might have dismissed it as chaotic and I'm the first to admit that it was different. But it was rooted in my experience at Bath between 1988 and 1996: a period in which I received a special kind of rugby education, guidance and enlightenment from Jack Rowell and those around him. It was a high-level, high-performing precursor to the national academy in which those participating had the added responsibility of playing and winning games under pressure in an extremely demanding competitive structure.

The environment created by Jack and company highlighted the importance of operating outside the norm. Except on cup final day, when we all looked distinctly uncomfortable in our blazers and shirts and ties, the group dressed down, like some rock 'n' roll outfit from the 1960s. Yet like the top bands of the time, they transformed themselves in performance, becoming an exciting and formidable performance-based act.

At the academy, we drew on this ethos. Of course, we understood the basics of collectivity, but we also challenged each player to embrace the whole range of rugby's possibilities, to look at the game in different ways through different eyes. We used the skills and disciplines of judo, netball, football and athletics to broaden both the mind-set and the skill-set.

We also brought in specialists in the field of mental skills to help players think clearly and cope better at the crucial moments – the hallmark of world-class performers across all sport. (I might add at this point that those specialists are now to be found working, extremely effectively, for another of rugby's major governing bodies.) Yes, rugby is team-driven. But in my view, it is incredibly difficult to develop a truly successful team environment if the beliefs and ideas of the people within it are sacrificed on the altar of the collective. There are times, quite clearly, when individuals should stand up to be counted by speaking up. If you squash that, you squash what's best in the game.

Referees risk being left in the slow lane

Watching my local club Fylde play at National Division Two level last weekend, and then tuning in to view London Irish's excellent performance at Newcastle in the Premiership, I was vividly aware of the demands on modern-day referees and understood perfectly why some people have called for an additional official on the field.

Both winning teams operated at sustained pace, taking full advantage of the latest moves to free up the tackle – an area that was such a stain on rugby this time last year.

I sympathise with referees as they try to keep tabs on a sport that places ever-increasing demands on fitness. It's a tough enough job when the game is played at carthorse speed. At racehorse speed, will union soon become impossible for one man to control?