Brian Ashton: Coaches must go with the flow, free of jargon

Tackling the issues
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Last weekend, I was in the north of England talking to a group of coaches involved in schools rugby.

We found ourselves discussing the difference between drills-based coaching, of which I've long been deeply suspicious – the word "drill" instantly conjures up an image of a sergeant major screaming, "This is how you do it", at soldiers marching up and down the parade ground – and sessions based on problem solving, with which I'm far more comfortable.

It set me thinking about the language of rugby and how the repeated use of certain words and phrases affects the way many people approach the game here. "Drill" is a good example of what I would call negative or inhibiting language, because to my mind, there are a lot of players who are good at drills who can't actually play. But there are plenty of others – "going through the phases", "setting a target" and "ball-carrier" to name three – and if we allow them to become embedded in the mindset of our coaches, especially those working with youngsters, what kind of game will we produce?

Let us unpack the phrase "going through the phases". It suggests that players are simply hanging on to possession and awaiting an error rather than seeking active ways of scoring by passing early, offloading out of the tackle or bamboozling an opponent with some fancy footwork. Of course, it is often argued that, by taking play through ruck after ruck, the opposition will eventually make the mistake that leads to a try. In answer to that, I would say that as it's generally easier to defend than it is to attack, the mistake is more likely to come from the team with the ball.

Slow possession from the "breakdown" (another word I dislike, suggestive as it is of something that's gone wrong) creates a kind of defensive heaven. Even the most incompetent defence can reorganise when the ball takes three or four seconds to emerge from a pile of bodies.

Which leads me on to this business about "targets". If I were a midfield player, I'd be less than impressed if I was told my job was to run straight and hard into the opposition with the sole intention of giving my forwards something to hit. Where's the creativity in that? Before the Lions tour of South Africa during the summer, we were told that Jamie Roberts, the powerfully built Welsh centre, was a natural "target player". To my great delight, he showed himself to be something rather more: a natural footballer.

Through exquisite timing and clever angles of running, he constantly put Brian O'Driscoll through holes and into space. Targets? The only target for Roberts and O'Driscoll was the opposition goal-line.

By the same yardstick, it beggars belief that any self-respecting forward would want to be pigeon-holed as a "ball-carrier". William Webb Ellis might have revelled in the description, but I'd like to think the sport has moved on a little since the 1820s.

During my trip north, I spent time with an old pal who just happens to have been one of England's great captains: Bill Beaumont. Both Bill and another friend of long standing, Fran Cotton, were tight forwards who could scrum and maul with the best of them, but they were also outstanding footballers who could use the ball as productively at close quarters as any back. They'd have been horrified by the label "ball-carrier", not least because it means nothing. What are you if you're not a ball-carrier? A full-time ruck-hitter? How depressing.

If we're not careful, we'll spawn a generation of "multi-phase-contact, breakdown-oriented players who set targets with their ball-carrying". It is not a description that has much room for the art of the game – for imagination or creativity, for playing off the cuff and living off the wits – but it is, worryingly, the common language of the moment, the kind of talk you can hear at hundreds of training sessions the length and breadth of the country.

Where do they come from, these ideas of rigid structure and single-tasking? A lot of them arrived here from American football. I have nothing against gridiron – it's an extremely demanding sport – but it's a game wholly dictated from the touchline. As I've spent an entire career in coaching trying to persuade players to take responsibility for their own decision making, you'll forgive me if I don't want to see union go too much further down that road.

Sarries should listen to their fans

Saracens went top of the Premiership last weekend, and by all accounts they were booed by their own supporters in the process. It led to a sharp response from the chief executive, Edward Griffiths, who took to the club website to criticise the booing.

I'm massively intrigued by this. I didn't see the game, but it seems the supporters became frustrated during an interminable bout of "ping-pong" kicking. If that's true, I can't honestly say I blame them. They pay good money to watch and, assuming there's nothing printed on the match ticket that says, "If you're not enjoying the rugby we're playing, shut up and let us get on with it", it seems to me that they're perfectly entitled to voice their displeasure.

On the field, the players are kings. Off the field, who are the most important people at a club: the management or the supporters? Saracens may well turn out to be a strong and successful team this season, but this reaction to a little criticism from the stands was bizarre.