Brian Ashton: French lessons can only improve our players

Tackling the issues: A new column from the coach who took England to the 2007 World Cup final – read it every Saturday
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The Independent Online

A few months ago, before the Harlequins blood capsule scandal and the deeply disappointing end-of-season problems at Bath, the biggest controversy in English rugby concerned the exodus of players from the Guinness Premiership to the Top 14 tournament in France.

Some of the biggest names in the domestic game – Jonny Wilkinson at one end of the age scale, James Haskell at the other, and a good few in between – signalled a desire to cross the Channel. As a result, a lot of people, not least at the Rugby Football Union, grew very hot under the collar.

One of those expressing alarm was Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby. That interested me. It was not so very long ago that Rob, very much a key figure for England at that point, spent a few months honing his skills and broadening his horizons in Toulouse. It didn't seem to do him any harm. Indeed, I remember him playing outside-half for Wasps at the Recreation Ground while I was coaching Bath in the mid-1990s and contributing magnificently to one of the most dynamic games of club rugby I'd seen in years. We won 9-6, which doesn't sound very exhilarating, but believe me, there was something special about the rugby played by both sides that day, and I recall thinking at the time that Rob's approach had a lot to do with the things he had learned in Toulouse.

I've thought long and hard about this issue of players moving abroad in an effort to identify the negative aspects and if I'm honest, I'm still struggling. I'm sure some people went to France purely for the big money currently available on that side of the water, but it is my belief that the majority went for different, better reasons – reasons that might be summarised as an enrichment of experience, both on and off the field. I can't help but see the positives in that, for I've long been of the opinion that if a player takes himself out of his comfort zone and spends time in a new and challenging environment, he reaps a significant benefit.

Thirty years ago, towards the back end of my playing career, I had the great good fortune to play rugby in France, for the club then known as Montferrand (Clermont Auvergne in today's language), and in Italy, with Rome and Milan. What effect did it have on me? Let's put it his way: I found myself discussing rugby with, and learning from, the likes of Carwyn James and Pierre Villepreux, two of the great coaches in rugby history. You might say it was a sporting education. It expanded my understanding of the possibilities of the game and helped sustain me through my own career in coaching.

Of course, the sport has changed dramatically in the decades since, but the thing that never changes is the value of developing as a person. Generally speaking, the best rugby players are also the most rounded individuals. If a talented young forward such as Haskell wants to get out of London and test himself in the very different kind of atmosphere of a club as high-profile and ambitious as Stade Français, I would prefer to encourage him in his spirit of adventure than put a chain around his ankle. Certainly, I would expect him to return much changed, and much improved.

One consequence of Haskell and one or two others leaving England was their omission from the Elite Player Squad announced in the summer. I can't help wondering if there is not an incoherence here. Wilkinson is playing, very successfully it appears, in Toulon, while Riki Flutey has moved to Brive. These two players are still in the EPS. Either some confused thinking is going on, or there are other reasons for the dropping of Haskell, Tom Palmer and Jamie Noon.

Yes, I understand that those in charge of the national team want easy access to their leading players and would no doubt prefer the likes of Haskell to be playing his rugby down the road. But France hardly qualifies as the other side of the world. Besides, most rugby people seem to have access to satellite broadcasting these days and can watch as much French action as they like. If the Haskells and Palmers are performing brilliantly for Stade Français, it should not be beyond the resources of the England hierarchy to watch them doing it one way or another.

If I have a regret about my own playing days, it is that I didn't go the whole hog and spend some time in the southern hemisphere. That would have toughened me up, both mentally and physically. Thirty years on, I'd hate to think professional players felt obliged to stay in one place, thinking and doing things the same way from one season to the next. If rugby is about anything, it's about embracing something new, not just as a player or a coach, but as a person.