Brian Ashton: England need entrepreneurial coach who will free players for competition
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 26 November 2011
Speculation has been rife in the week or so since Martin Johnson's resignation as England manager as to what will happen next, particularly on the subject of whether a foreign recruit might be the best solution to a very knotty problem, but the only thing we can say for sure is that more candidates have ruled themselves out than in – extremely bluntly, in the case of the World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry.
To my mind, the clearest assessment of the way forward has been made by Sir Clive Woodward, with whom I had the pleasure and privilege of working over a four-and-a-half-year span with England. In particular, I was struck by his insistence that the new manager, if that's what he is to be called, should have some of the entrepreneurial spirit about him.
The entrepreneur shows leadership by selecting the correct staff; he perceives opportunities that others may not see, or at least before others do; he is prepared to take risks in pursuit of eventual success; he shows himself to be innovative in his grasp of any new technologies that might be available, increasing efficiency and productivity as a consequence; he acts as a catalyst for change. How do I know this? Because this is precisely what Clive did in his time with the national team. He also demanded that we on the coaching staff show our own entrepreneurial side – never, I hope, an issue for me – and encouraged us to constantly question and challenge the perceived order of things. It was an excellent, thoroughly modern environment that over time produced successful results.
It was with great interest that, while considering all this, I read some comments attributed to Tom Croft, the Leicester and England flanker. In essence, he argued that there was no need to rush in contracting a new boss for the national team because the playing group were perfectly capable of preparing themselves for the forthcoming Six Nations if the RFU was willing to put faith in them and give them the opportunity. I can imagine many people who have just read and heard of the things that went on at the recent World Cup wondering if this is really feasible.
Croft also said there were players in and around the elite squad who would be prepared to set up and lead training sessions and that the present players should decide the style of rugby they wish to play. I am fairly certain that I have heard that concept somewhere before: of a coach being an enabling, player-centred figure whose business it is to create an environment of freedom in which players can perform and improve – an environment that all players can share in when it comes to preparation and therefore be in the right place to take over the decision-making in the heat of competition, making the calls that will lead to victory. This has been at the forefront of my thinking for longer than I care to remember.
In my experience, the most spectacular example of this involved a team of 16 to 18-year-old schoolboys who decided they would play a non-kicking game for an entire season and had the courage and discipline to stick to their guns. It was the kind of collective approach that brought a disparate group of people closer together – a positive by-product of group responsibility – and it forced everyone involved to look at the game from a totally different angle. Ultimately, it was a fascinating journey into the unknown for all.
As preparation at professional level becomes more and more sanitised and analysis-led, do we really possess the players and coaches who are either willing or able to operate in this way? Even more importantly, is there any one person at the Rugby Football Union who would understand the potential benefits of such an approach? I am pretty sure most players would not wish to run the show themselves, but it appears there may be a groundswell of opinion within the current squad that the time has come to step forward and be counted. This is precisely why the entrepreneurial nature of the next manager is so important. He must pick up on what Croft and others are saying and see it as an opportunity – a catalyst for cultural change – rather than a threat to the established orthodoxy. It is an opportunity to realign individual leadership roles in a no-fear environment; to encourage players and coaches to embrace risk and develop new ways of thinking.
On the field, this may simply involve reducing the number of pre-conceived ideas and concentrate instead on increasing the understanding of the principles of play. Croft is quoted as saying that the players want to develop a "heads-up" way of playing that suits them best. Good for him, although I can't say I like the wording. I prefer the version favoured by the great French coach Pierre Villepreux, who always talks about "playing with your eyes open" – a more striking phrase, implying as it does that players should constantly search for opportunities.
This afternoon at RFU headquarters (how ironic), we will see a group of players, thrown together under the umbrella of the Barbarians, take the field against Australia, the bronze medal winners at the World Cup. Given that these Baa-Baas are drawn from 10 different countries and have a very brief lead-in period, albeit under the expert guidance of Henry and his fellow New Zealander Steve Hansen, they will have no choice but to take responsibility for preparation themselves, just as Croft wishes.
There is great added interest in how they will integrate an individual who has never before experienced a serious game of rugby union. I refer of course to the brilliant rugby league international Sam Tomkins. With my entrepreneurial coaching hat on, I believe this gives both Tomkins and the team a chance to do something special on the day.
When I read that he had been asked to play, I was spirited back 15 years to the dawning of the professional era in the union game, when Bath and Wigan agreed a four-month cross-code deal involving the league specialists Jason Robinson and Henry Paul. The view of players and coaches alike that this was a great success was not shared by some of the more negative figures on the fringes of both codes, but it was undoubtedly fascinating.
Jason, especially in those days, was a very demanding young man who immediately wanted to know the key technical differences he would have to take on board at Bath. My interest, however, was in his attacking mindset: his natural assumption that he could score from anywhere and everywhere on the field. I felt that would chime with the other players in the squad, so I encouraged him to retain this at all costs, assuring him that we would all buy into it. The fine detail about ball retention in the tackle could wait, because more often than not he wouldn't be tackled in the first place.
I suspect Henry and the Baa-Baas players will take the same approach with Tomkins – that they will make the environment as comfortable as possible for him and let him perform. He is, very simply, a world-class rugby player. He can take the high ball, tackle, and kick when he feels it appropriate. What he does best, though, is use his elusive, loping running style to unbalance defenders, offload before and in contact and make clean line-breaks. With other high-calibre players around him, it will be required viewing.
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