Brian Ashton: For Toulouse, victory is simply a by-product

Tackling The Issues

Innovative thinking. Now, there's a thought. Just recently, I found myself making a presentation on this subject to a leading business services company who had achieved a significant degree of success but were fearful of spending too long on a plateau and wanted to investigate ways of upping their game and taking things to the next stage.

Delegates found themselves involved in some interesting exercises: at one point, they were set the task of persuading a sceptical audience that surfing, sumo wrestling, tug-of-war and darts could and should be granted Olympic status. The challenge was to take an idea widely perceived as pie in the sky, assimilate it in a short space of time and somehow make it convincing.

As I watched the unfolding of last weekend's compelling Heineken Cup quarter-finals – which, I have to say, produced such wonderful entertainment that it was difficult not to place the tournament above the Six Nations as the best showcase for the sport in the northern hemisphere – certain parallels struck me. There is no substitute, either in rugby or in business, for a sound operational base: without it, there is no realistic possibility of raising performance levels in a sustained manner. But the thing that separates the truly successful sides, like Toulouse and Munster, from the merely ambitious is the way they use those foundations to launch something above and beyond the norm.

Technique, physical conditioning, game understanding: these are the basic components, and the more developed the basics, the higher the level of performance and the higher the potential. That is both a simple rugby equation and an unchallengeable sporting truth. A second truth was evident at the weekend. We spoke last week about the mindset of the away teams and the importance of them putting their own stamp on things from the outset, and while I have a small question mark against Northampton, who did not take the game to Munster in the way I thought they might, Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys and Stade Français all asked very serious things of their hosts before bowing out of the competition, the first two by a single point. Their performances reminded us that in the elite environment, teams have to find a way of raising the ceiling of operational performance.

It is not good enough to be satisfied at reaching the usual limits, because in knock-out rugby of the magnitude we have just witnessed, a team sitting back quickly becomes a team overtaken. To be a Toulouse or a Munster, it is essential to have a set of foundations and a framework so strong that you can move into a performance area where the consistent winning of big games becomes the norm. Good sides know how to find their optimal cruising speed. The best sides know how to move beyond it.

There were a number of factors shared by those teams making it through to next month's semi-finals. They showed an ability to move through the gears, raising and lowering the tempo at will; they were prepared to attempt the unexpected – witness the astonishing try by the Biarritz wing Takudzwa Ngwenya direct from a turnover near his own line – and were always seeking ways of changing the nature of the contest, like Kevin Pietersen in cricket.

Add to this certain individuals' ability to restore order from chaos by quickly finding their way back to first principles and then moving the game on once more in a new and challenging way, and you see the value of giving them the freedom to interpret a match as it unfolds, rather than straitjacketing them with a pre-ordained approach. Dimitri Yachvili of Biarritz, Byron Kelleher and Yannick Jauzion of Toulouse, Tomas O'Leary and Ronan O'Gara of Munster ... here were well-equipped, intelligently-coached players who understood how to make a difference and were licensed to do so.

Very few teams can commit to a truly innovative brand of rugby and play it at high pace without compromising technical excellence, but those in that happy minority – Toulouse have been there for as long as I can remember – spend less time than anyone thinking about winning. For them, winning just happens. It is this that defines them. Many sides who achieve high standards of technique and conditioning make the mistake of believing that nothing more is needed. The Heineken Cup proves that those who think that way are the ones who find themselves being shot down.

Why Danny is a perfect 10

Danny Cipriani is back in the news, although I am not sure he's ever out of it these days. His eye-catching display in last weekend's Amlin Challenge Cup tie between Wasps and Gloucester set tongues wagging once again and the more top-notch performances he turns in as the spring sunshine grows warmer and the going gets faster, the more will be written about his impending move to Australia and its potential consequences.

All I would say is that Danny embodies all the virtues I've been discussing this week. Here is a player with technical skill, good physical conditioning – the fact that he works with the renowned sprint coach Margot Wells tells you all you need to know about his fitness – and an intuitive level of game understanding. Innovation? The ability to change the tempo of a game? The confidence to attempt the unexpected? A love of freedom? A hell of a lot has been said about Danny over the last couple of years, but in essence, that little list gets to the heart of the matter.

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