Brian Ashton: How Irish tale of the expected sealed cautious England's fate

Tackling The Issues

England's success in laying hands on the Six Nations trophy for the first time in eight years should not be underestimated – titles at international level are never easy to come by – but, given the nature of their defeat in Dublin last weekend, it was fairly predictable that the number of bouquets strewn at the feet of Martin Johnson and his team would be more than matched by the volume of brickbats thrown at their heads. That's the way of it in professional sport.

I have to say that the problems England encountered against the Irish were also predictable: certainly, the potential for a green-shirted uprising of considerable magnitude was evident throughout the build-up to the game. It therefore became a question of people dealing not with the unexpected but of them dealing with the expected. This is what England failed to do at the new Lansdowne Road, just as we failed at Croke Park when I was in charge back in 2007. Why? It's an interesting question.

I've explored the topic of coping with the unforeseen in previous columns. The well-known mantra of the Special Boat Service – "No plan survives the first contact with the enemy" – feeds into this, as does the Royal Marines' approach of training personnel to deal with dislocated expectations by developing the "counterpressure with pressure" mindset. All of these approaches and philosophies are entirely positive, based as they are on the foundations of sound technique and a strong work ethic. If people are not to weaken and wilt when events unfold in a surprising way, they need a default position that reinforces their sense of collective will and organisation.

But what happens when something easily foreseen happens with such force that it threatens to overwhelm? Last Saturday, I watched this happen twice: first when Fylde travelled to Preston Grasshoppers for a league match, then at a rather higher level across the Irish Sea. Fylde knew they would have to deal with a big, physical Preston side of limited ambition, a team determined to slow things down and suck the life from the game, yet they struggled for long periods to find a response and were relieved to emerge victorious. England were also forewarned and forearmed: indeed, the Scots had given them a mini-preview of what was coming six days previously with their merciless and disruptive assault at the tackle area, and we all knew the Irish would have the same end in mind and would be even less forgiving, given that they would be calling on better, more experienced players. Unfortunately, England did not find a method of coping.

When firm expectation becomes uncomfortable reality the default position I mentioned earlier can be of great help in stabilising a situation that threatens to career out of control. But to rise above circumstances driven by the opposition and establish some kind of counter-dominance requires a high degree of mental strength centred on three principles: the ability to establish order from chaos; the ability to engage in paradigm-shift thinking; and the ability to deliver something completely different. Players who successfully embrace these elements are rarely stopped in their tracks by events unfolding in front of, and around, them.

Once again, I return to the great heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1975, for this was a classic example of a sportsman who understood well in advance the nature of the challenge he faced, found the reality of that challenge to be every bit as formidable as he had anticipated, yet identified and ventured along a new and unexplored pathway with such skill and commitment that he was able to undermine a bigger, stronger opponent, both physically and mentally. Foreman expected to win that night, went after the victory in an entirely predictable way, and disappeared into a fog of confusion.

There are parallels in other sports, notably cricket. Some years ago I found myself in the company of John Buchanan, the coach of the Australian Test team, and was fascinated by the story of how he introduced himself to the side by challenging them to score at a previously unheard of 4.5 runs per over and change the nature of the game in the process. Kevin Pietersen brought about a change by introducing his dastardly take on the "reverse-sweep" shot. Muttiah Muralitharan upset the apple cart with his "doosra" delivery – hardly the product of prescriptive thinking. In each case, the paradigm-shift approach enabled these people to confront, and defeat, the expected.

In both life and sport, the majority accept the norms of behaviour. It is the minority, armed with the courage to fail, who take a look over the horizon and react positively to the things they find there. Comfort zones are easy places in moments of crisis, but the ones who ultimately gain the upper hand are those who relish the hostile environment and take the uncompromising, painful road to victory. As Ali, my great hero, said: "He who does not dare to take risks achieves nothing in life."

Masi's award reflects credit on sustained team effort by Azzurri

If there is anywhere in the world I regard as my second home, it is Italy. I played rugby there in the late 1970s, began my coaching career there at the same time and have made regular visits to the country ever since. You can imagine my delight, then, at seeing a member of the Azzurri, the full-back Andrea Masi, walk away with the Six Nations Player of the Championship award.

I have to say that my own vote would have gone to the captain, Sergio Parisse, whose performances at No 8 underlined his status as one of the world's finest back-row forwards. It is not a major quibble, however. The fact that an Italian player received the championship gong after a campaign in which the team as a whole adopted a more enterprising approach, and might easily have ended up with three wins as a result, is satisfying enough in itself.

It has been a long, tough path for them and their journey is not yet over. Progress is there for all to see, however, and I congratulate them.

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