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
News
people

Arts and Entertainment
JJ Abrams' seventh Star Wars, The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of Episode VII has gone online after weeks of anticipation
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
art

Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax

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 Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game