Brian Ashton: Football can teach my code plenty of lessons

Tackling The Issues

I've never subscribed to the theory of isolationism as a means of improvement: back in 2003, when I was in charge of the Rugby Football Union's national academy, one of my key principles was to mix with, and learn from, top-level performers and coaches from across the sporting spectrum.

The intention was to make the academy a thought-provoking place to be; somewhere that offered physical and mental stimulus by exposing people to unfamiliar environments and challenging them at a level from which they derived personal satisfaction. The single-sport approach – rugby, and only rugby – all too often produces the kind of narrow-mindedness that undermines progressive learning and reinforces the status quo.

You may have read earlier in the week, in this newspaper, an account of a meeting between myself, Neil Warnock, the Queen's Park Rangers manager, and Angus Fraser, the former England pace bowler who now runs cricket at Middlesex. It was a real privilege to engage in a wide-ranging discussion on various topics within England's three biggest sports and it gave me the opportunity to listen, learn and take away ideas I could adopt and adapt as a way of improving my own coaching.

With all this circulating in my mind, I watched last weekend's Manchester City-Arsenal game as a guest of Kevin Roberts, chairman of USA Rugby, chief executive of Saatchi and Saatchi International, an old boy of Lancaster Royal Grammar School (like myself) and a vociferous City supporter. If you ever find yourself in need of some emotional and intellectual stimulation, 10 minutes in Kevin's company will sort you out nicely.

Having marvelled at many aspects of the contest, I left the ground telling myself that I should spend more time watching live Premier League football. From first whistle to last there was no mistaking the attacking intent of both sides, and it made for riveting viewing. As I tend to do on these occasions, I jotted down during the course of the game elements of play that I later checked against my own coaching ideas and values. I might just point out at this stage that, while there have been many positive influences on my development over the years, the most influential coaching book I ever read was the Football Association Guide to Teaching and Coaching, written by Allen Wade in 1966. While the physical conditioning and technical side of the sport were covered in detail, the main thrust of Wade's book concerned the principles of play with and without the ball that enables a team to function successfully.

So what did I learn at the Etihad Stadium? In no particular order; 1) The control and accuracy of the players under intense and ever-changing pressure was immensely impressive – skills underpinned by intelligent movement from virtually everyone on the field when they were not in possession. The general willingness to seek out space and offer options was outstanding; 2) The pace at which all this took place is only truly discernible when watching live. Television does not come close to highlighting this quality; 3) The vision and communication skills common to the vast majority of the players ensured there was little in the way of hit-and-hope football: the long ball was sparingly used, and only when appropriate; 4) The way both sides dealt with transition play – the turnover, in rugby parlance – was highly instructive. Their capacity to be both reactive and proactive with their own and the opposition's changes of shape amounted to a coaching lesson.

It set me thinking that much of the best of football is transferable to the union game, provided the coaching mindset allows for it and the players are willing to meet the challenge. It means stretching the imagination beyond the traditional collision/contact mentality and showing a desire to discover exactly what might be achieved by using the 7,000 square metre area of the rugby field to its fullest extent. It seems to me that Harlequins have been moving down this road more quickly than anyone in England. If they have been persistent underachievers in the professional age, they are making something of themselves now. Conor O'Shea, the director of rugby, is steering the ship on a course that both challenges and excites the players, who appear to be working in a thoroughly positive and enjoyable environment.

This was evident last week, when they registered a remarkable Heineken Cup victory at Toulouse. The two sides had met in London eight days previously, when Quins were blown off the park. In particular, they were bullied at the tackle area. To their credit, they addressed this problem and came up with a solution: certainly, there were no backward steps the second time around. To a significant extent, their competitiveness in this area denied Toulouse the opportunity of playing their characteristic free-flowing game, with all its subtle variety. It also allowed Quins to play challenging, dynamic rugby of their own and record a famous triumph.

Even more impressive in some ways was the characteristic modesty of Conor in a midweek interview. He was unequivocal in arguing that he had simply built on good structures already in place and insisted that the real plaudits should go to the players. He did not seek at any point to take credit, and while it is obvious that he has had a lively influence on life at the Stoop, it was refreshing to encounter some genuine humility. Perhaps the most significant point made by the Irishman concerned his players' striving for "optimum performance" week in, week out, and his assertion that talk of winning was rarely, if ever, the No 1 item on the agenda. This topic – the balance between performance and result – often creates heated debates in top-level sporting environments.

For my part, I see it as a no-brainer. Below-par performance rarely results in victory and playing only to win can be a massive, pressurising distraction. When you play at your top performance level, or preferably increase it, you are likely to be a tough team to beat. More often than not, the outcome – surprise, surprise – will be a "W".

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
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

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam