Brian Ashton: Glimpses of an attacking revolution bode well for the future
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 17 March 2012
The Six Nations Championship, which draws to a close today, may not have provided us with a consistent level of entertainment over the last month and a half, but it has certainly produced an intriguing last round in which each game has meaning, the precise significance of which depends on your nationality. The rugby has at times been both dramatic and controversial, especially the two last-minute climaxes involving Wales – the first in Dublin, the second at Twickenham – but it would be stretching a point to suggest that this has been a great tournament.
Scotland and Italy will find themselves in the land of déjà vu early this afternoon, slugging it out in a "wooden spoon" contest in Rome. The eternal argument in the Eternal City? It seems that way sometimes, and given the vagaries, fragilities and peculiarities of both sides, the outcome on this occasion is anyone's guess.
Wales have been the most consistent performers and are good value for their top-dog status going into the Grand Slam meeting with France, but I suspect Warren Gatland, their coach, is feeling just a little disappointed at the failure of his players to really kick on from their win in Ireland on the first weekend. All things considered, though, I don't suppose too many people will quibble with a third title – and a third Slam – in eight years if they complete the job by beating the annoyingly frustrating Tricolores today.
This is not, of course, a foregone conclusion, and in the event of a tight finish, Wales will certainly wonder, with some trepidation, whether their opponents have suddenly unearthed a player capable of dropping a goal. But, to their credit, Gatland's players have demonstrated an improved level of maturity – before and after matches as well as during them, I might add – and their collective authority, underpinned by a deep-seated competitive will, has enabled them safely to negotiate a couple of crucial passages while playing with 14 men.
A defeat for the 2011 World Cup runners-up – and there cannot be anyone in Wales who has forgotten the circumstances in which the French reached last October's final – will leave Philippe Saint-André, a few short weeks into his international coaching career, in the uncomfortable position of having to review and re-plot his approach to selection. And no, the task will not be limited to finding a reliable drop-goal practitioner. From what I've seen of the French attacking game, the issues run deeper.
England enter the last lap in a position few predicted at the outset. They are still a fledgling side, but there is no doubting the success of the caretaker coaching team in restoring some pride in the jersey and a sense of humility among the players. They will want to finish with another improved performance: indeed, they probably need to do so, for all sorts of reasons – not least because everyone involved appears to have enjoyed the Six Nations journey and would like the opportunity to enjoy whatever comes next. To my mind, they have a good chance of taking a step forward at Twickenham this evening: the Irish are no doubt kicking themselves for allowing potential victories over Wales and France to slip through their fingers and will be seeking to salvage as much as they can, but how much gas do they have left in the collective tank? Four tournament games of considerable magnitude in four weeks is a demanding schedule.
Talking of people kicking things, players have put boot to ball too frequently in this competition, and the "ping-pong" element has been particularly irritating. Yet all six teams have at least attempted to play with ball in hand and while some have done it with more conviction and expertise than others, there has been some adherence to the basic principle of preserving width as a means of challenging the opposition – of keeping as many attacking options open for as long as possible while forcing defences to consider how best to organise themselves in order to prevent that width being exploited.
This has encouraged me, but I must say that some attackers have offered enormous assistance to defenders by using the long, wide spin pass as a means of transferring the ball across the field. In fact, the spin pass has become the core modus operandi of the modern game, which to my way of thinking is very unfortunate indeed. While it is undeniable that the ball is moved around the field under this form of distribution, there are inherent difficulties of technique when it comes to gripping, delivering and receiving the thing. As a result, the players involved frequently have to buy themselves time and space in which to operate – time that is rarely available in the breathless cut and thrust of international rugby.
In turn, this allows the defenders to occupy the space beyond the gain line and immediately blunt the attack by preventing forward momentum. It also allows well-organised defences to track the ball across the field, pretty much the last thing those in possession want to see if they are serious about creating scoring opportunities. There is another way – an old-fashioned way, actually – and it has been perfected by the Kangaroos, the elite Australian rugby league team who are, in my view, the most confrontational and successful running/passing side in the whole of the rugby world.
They play by maintaining the full width of the pitch, but within that template they also flood narrow channels of between 10 and 15 metres with four, maybe five runners, all of whom use short, direct, old-style passes to attract the attention of individual defenders and keep them penned in the space they are already occupying. In this way, they create five-on-threes, three-on-twos and every other form of potential overlap known to rugby.
When discussing this with fellow coaches, I often hear the argument that it is much easier to do this in league than it is in union. The reason? Because in the 13-man game, there is guaranteed retention of possession at the tackle. To my mind, this is another example of the negativity that continues to beset our game. If teams spent as much time developing the themes of variety, challenge and space-creation in attack as they do on preventing the opposition breaking down their own defensive lines, maybe the balance of playing with and without the ball might change for the better.
With this last thought in mind, I fervently hope that whatever the differing pressures affecting all of today's Six Nations participants, they set out with a positive mindset.
Rees had talent to become England captain
It was with immense sadness that I learned of the enforced retirement of Tom Rees, the Wasps and England flanker who, after a long and traumatic run of injury problems, felt he had no option but to accept medical advice and call it a day.
Tom was, and is, an outstanding young man. An important part of my squad during my time as England coach, he had bags of leadership potential and would, had things gone better for him, have been a fixture in his country's back row and might well have been captain by now.
There is no immediate upside when a player as good as him decides he must walk away from the game he loves. But he is a shrewd, intelligent individual, and whatever path in life he now decides to take, he'll make a success of it. I wish him well.
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