Brian Ashton: Don't batten down the hatches playing in a storm – take wing
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 22 January 2011
The weather in the Lake District last weekend was not at its best but there was something in the rugby played by Fylde during the first half of their league match at Kendal that did justice to the majesty of the surroundings, even if the scenery was barely visible to the naked eye.
As a sporting experience it was both fascinating and uplifting, and it brought some cherished memories flooding back. No pun intended, I might add.
When the rain is falling in torrents and the gods have thrown in a howling gale for good measure, most coaches and players fall back on low-risk, ultra-conservative, field-position strategy: kick the ball, chase it, and wait for the opposition to make a mistake. There's nothing wrong with that... unless, of course, your mentality demands that you approach the game in a more challenging fashion. Fylde, the club with which I'm most closely associated these days, took the more difficult, adventurous road and reaped the rewards of their ambition.
The players set out their stall before kick-off when the scrum-half sauntered up to the referee and informed him that he and his colleagues intended to play a quick-ball game. The referee looked at him as though he were some kind of alien, yet in the teeth of the elements, Fylde performed with such discipline and intelligence that they registered a bonus point inside 25 minutes and reached the interval 36-0 up. Their sense of satisfaction was tangible, and not being professionals, they were able to celebrate in time-honoured rugby fashion.
Watching events unfold from the touchline, I found myself recalling some equally startling wet-weather performances that reminded all those who witnessed them of the full range of rugby's possibilities. Back in the mid-1990s, the All Blacks, captained by Sean Fitzpatrick, found themselves playing a Bledisloe Cup Test against Australia in Wellington. The underfoot conditions were terribly difficult and the New Zealanders were operating in the face of horizontal rain in the first half, but their mindset and skill set were such that they were able to maintain possession for the entire 40 minutes, give or take a brief moment here and there, and snuff the Wallabies out of the contest. All this in the cauldron of international competition.
Some 20 years previously, during my own playing days at Orrell, we had been drawn against Harlequins in the national knockout cup. Quins were a big club then, as they are now, and they famously described Orrell as "a lay-by on the M6". As the weather closed in during the hours before kick-off our captain Des Seabrook rubbed his hands in glee and said: "Let's see how those southerners like this," or words to that effect. A converted try was worth only five points back then. The result? We won 25-0. As a playing experience, it ranks up there with the best.
So what is it that enables this to happen? The most important ingredient is the belief that it can be done. If people believe, certain technical and tactical qualities then come into play. These include, in no particular order, the following: high-calibre resetting, with players regaining their feet quickly and repositioning themselves faster than the opposition; playing to the edges of the defence, with numbers running off No 12 rather than No 10 to attack areas where tacklers are beginning to thin out; latching early on to the player with the ball, helping him stay on his feet and drive as far as possible; employing the "two pass minimum" strategy rather than trying to run everything off the scrum-half; attacking space even in the most congested parts of the field with secure, sensible offloading; and making the most of blind-side channels, creating space for the quick men with short passing and direct running.
Crucially, teams should never abandon the concept of playing with width, for even in the worst conditions, there will always come a time when it can be used effectively. As the All Blacks have demonstrated so often and Fylde, in their own way and at their own level, reminded us last week, the "width principle" is at the heart of the matter whenever rugby shows the best of itself.
My great privilege to have run with the Lion of Vienna
It was with great sorrow that I read of the death of Nat Lofthouse, our celebrated "Lion of Vienna" and a great England centre-forward. He was the epitome of the one-club man, his club being Bolton Wanderers, and I remember him as one of the real gentlemen of sport.
Not that he was too gentle with me when, as a 20-year-old working in Bolton, I was invited by a colleague at Fylde, the England centre Malcolm Phillips, to sharpen my fitness with some Tuesday night sprint training at Burnden Park. Our coach and fellow competitor turned out to be Nat, who was 40 at the time but still in top condition, as I found to my cost.
At our first session, which consisted entirely of 50-yard interval sprints, he asked me if I wanted a five-yard start. Being a brash little upstart, I turned the offer down. He promptly beat me by eight yards and never asked again. Indeed, I went on to lose every sprint for a year. It was a painful lesson, but I consider myself privileged to have known Nat, however briefly.
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