Brian Ashton: Heineken Cup hopefuls could take a lesson or two from Celtic Manor

Tackling The Issues
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The start of a Heineken Cup campaign is a treat for us all, not least because the tournament asks such fresh and challenging questions of its participants, many of whom will quickly discover that delivering high-level performances in an unfamiliar environment is no easy matter.

By coincidence, I spent last weekend watching a variety of sports, both live and on television, in which teams and individuals showed exactly the combination of qualities needed to succeed in a tournament as demanding as the Heineken.

In fact, I would go as far as to describe the recent fare as a bonanza for the general sports enthusiast, which is what I consider myself to be. I started by tuning into the fabulously dramatic event that was the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor: a gladiatorial competition that tested the technique and mental toughness of the golfers, each of whom were confronted with the added pressure of operating within whispering distance of passionate supporters gathered around tees and greens. Few sports place this particular kind of stress on the leading practitioners and it made for gripping viewing.

What with the weather conditions, the interruptions and the ebb and flow of the contest, adaptability was a crucial weapon in the armoury. Its importance was further underlined when, a little later, I watched the extraordinary Indian cricketer Virender Sehwag turn the hard-fought Test against Australia in Mohali with a 39-ball half century. This prompted one of the commentators to describe Sehwag's innings as "paradigm shift batting". I've talked of paradigm shifts more than once in these pages – the idea that the top-class rugby player should have the ability to embrace wholly different and transformative ways of thinking in seeking to shift the balance of a match has been central to my coaching – and I saw something special in Sehwag as he brought the skills and mentality of Twenty20 cricket to the Test arena.

From there, it was off to the beautiful surroundings of the southern Lake District to watch the youngsters of Sedbergh School engage in some paradigm-shift thinking of their own in a first XV match that, in its context, was as good as any game of union I've seen all season.

Their exceptional display of attacking rugby was the product of the liberating mindset inculcated by teachers who insist, in a phrase my great sporting hero Muhammad Ali understood better than anyone, that nothing is impossible in terms of sporting performance. They defended as though their lives depended upon it to keep a clean sheet, played with width, kept the ball alive with some splendidly direct short passing and showed a willingness to challenge their opponents from anywhere and everywhere. This was underpinned by a vibrant mix of pace and accuracy, together with an approach that was confrontational in the fullest sense of the word. To watch all this in such a blissful part of the world was a joy.

I should mention at this point that I subsequently met up with John Fletcher, the former Newcastle director of rugby who now runs the show with the England Under-18s. He told me over a bacon butty that there are some outstandingly talented youngsters starting to make their way into the adult game. He also said that at a recent meeting with leading figures from the Premiership clubs, he had put forward the opinion that in many cases, this talent was being over-coached in the professional environment. As this column has been down this road more than once, I can only say: "No surprise there, then." Equally unsurprising was the club contingent's vigorous denial of the charge.

Back on my voyage across the sporting landscape, I made sure I was in front of a television set in good time to watch the Super League Grand Final between Wigan and St Helens at Old Trafford. It may be the case that no one living south of the East Lancs Road or north of Bolton could conceivably understand the depth of rivalry between these two giants of the 13-man game, but believe me, they produced a contest that combined all the elements I've been discussing and put them on display for the full 80 minutes. Positive thinking was the central component of Wigan's victory and I, for one, revelled in it.

Happily, the Heineken Cup is precisely the kind of tournament that inspires positivity. Its cross-border nature ensures that people find themselves operating a long way outside their comfort zones. More importantly still, the serious contenders know that a conservative mentality – an exercise in sameness – will not win them the most sought-after club trophy in European union, or even take them close. In my experience, it is the uncoached and uncoachable flash of genius from the special player that defines the competition and decides the destination of the silverware. I'm looking forward to the latest instalment with great anticipation.

Tiger teaches us not to write off legends

We must all beware of writing off, or slagging off, special sportsmen who happen to be going through dark moments. I was startled, to put it mildly, when, during the build-up to the Ryder Cup, a journalist publicly described Tiger Woods – to Tiger's face – as a "normal player". Assuming he was present to see Woods tear up the course during the singles with some truly sensational golf – nine under for 11 holes is quite something, you'll agree – the man must have scoured the whole of Wales looking for a stone big enough to hide under. The great performers achieve greatness over a period of time. To question their ability on the basis of one rough spell is nothing short of fatuous.

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