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

Tackling The Issues
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The Independent Online

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.

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