Brian Ashton: Elite player project offers chance to finish job I started

Tackling The Issues

Now the excitement over John Steele's restructuring revolution at Twickenham has subsided, it will be fascinating to see how his master plan to push England along the rocky path to No 1 status in the world game unfolds in reality.

Of the three new rugby directorships created by the chief executive, the "performance" role has attracted most attention – predictable, given that the usual suspects are being linked with the job. We can expect a wave of speculation over the next few months.

Yet by indicating that this will not be an exercise in "looking backwards" and expressing a willingness to cast his net over the whole world of sport in his search for the right people, John has opened up a range of possibilities. Will the performance director turn out to be an Englishman? Will he be a rugby figure at all? Might those carrying inevitable baggage from their lifetimes spent in the union game be passed over in favour of someone who has a track record of management success in another sport? A fresh pair of eyes and a new perspective might be of benefit to the Rugby Football Union, but is there a candidate out there who has the vision, as well as the organisational expertise, to move things forward? We shall see.

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of all this is elite player development. Who will be responsible for bringing our brightest youngsters, those with the capacity to win World Cups for England, to maturity? This was the raison d'être of the RFU National Academy I instigated some seven years ago – an academy that was disbanded, then given a quasi-reinvention as a team-based operation, which rather missed the point of the original idea.

That idea was simple, yet challenging. Together with the cricket equivalent based at Loughborough University, many graduates of which are now household names, the academy was a vehicle designed to take carefully selected players on a journey that would, if completed, leave them in the best possible position to compete with, and beat, the best the world had to offer. We identified the best prospects from schools and clubs – and, in cricket's case, the county age-group sides – and sought to "grow" them in an environment that offered a great deal of individual attention, along with a significant level of peer-group pressure and competition.

We spent around 12 weeks together each year – always in the school holidays, for some of those invited were still in compulsory education – and all aspects of technique, physical conditioning, game understanding, mental skills and lifestyle management were addressed on a daily basis. The heat was always on the youngsters because, in a wholly positive way, the environment was hostile. Mathew Tait versus Shane Geraghty versus Anthony Allen versus Dominic Waldouck in the centre? Danny Cipriani against Ryan Lamb at No 10? Ben Youngs versus Danny Care versus Joe Simpson at scrum-half? When these sorts of talents are brought together in intense competition, there can be no hiding place. And there wasn't.

A lot was asked of the players involved. They had plenty of guidance and support but ultimately, we expected them to drive things through their performance and their behaviour, just as they would be expected to drive a contest on the field. To my mind, these were people who could go beyond simply emulating what they saw happening around them or what had gone before. I wanted them to change the nature of rugby, to shape the game of the future, and to this end, top-level coaches and athletes from other sports were brought in to widen the base of the education on offer. People came from judo to talk about body management and mental toughness; from track and field to talk about speed and concentration; from football and netball to discuss 360-degree vision, communication, off-the-ball movement, spatial awareness.

What we didn't do, quite deliberately, was play fixtures. Why? Because the process of player identification was so rigorous, not all positions were filled by each intake. We were interested in quality, not quantity. It took us three years to find a lock – Dave Attwood, now a full international – we felt would make the right sort of contribution. And this was to be the academy's downfall. Despite its proven success in producing international-class talent, this radical approach to development was a concept too far for certain members of the RFU who could not understand that in many years the England age-group teams had only one player good enough to make the cut, and sometimes none.

This is as true today as it was then: you have only to look at the wide age-range covering the current England team for evidence. Yet the idea remains dormant. Will we see an awakening when the RFU's revamped rugby department turns its attention to the home World Cup in 2015? I have no idea, but I would like to think so.

Epidemic of arm-waving sends out all the wrong signals

have you spotted the fast-growing trend of arm-waving in rugby at all levels? To be honest, you'd have struggled to miss it. Players, generally of the scrum-half variety, seem to be on a permanent mission to grab the attention of the referee and influence him in the hope he will penalise the opposition.

It seems to me that modern No 9s consider theatrical gesticulation to be as much of an art form as passing the ball off the floor in one movement.

What part of the week's preparation does arm-waving come under? Does it fall under the "technical" heading, or under "tactical"? I was a scrum-half once, more years ago than I care to remember, and I can honestly say I never had the inclination, still less the time, to concentrate on anything other than my skills. Rugby has changed, it seems. I have no doubt there will soon be an end-of-year award for the best arm-waver of the season.

Win an exclusive Doom Bar t-shirt!

Do you think you know your rugby? Do you want to make your voice heard? Do you want to win a sharp Sharp's t-shirt?

Tell us what you think about the state of the game in the comments below, and you could be in with a shot at winning a particularly snazzy Doom Bar t-shirt. Over the next month, Online sports editor Simon Rice will be watching the comments under Brian Ashton's Saturday columns like a hawk, looking out for the most interesting, thoughtful and provocative comments from readers. Is Brian on the money, or is he talking nonsense? What's wrong with the England team, who's going to win the Premier League, and are New Zealand really unbeatable?

Then, on February 7, after a month's heated debate, Simon will pick his favourite comment to win that coveted shirt. What are you waiting for? Put the rugby world to rights.

Entrants must be aged 18 or over. Terms and conditions apply.

If you have any problems posting your comments, you can also email your entry to onlinecompetitions@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas