Brian Ashton: In a World Cup year, let's have some world-class rugby

Tackling The Issues
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The Independent Online

In wishing everyone a happy 2011 – and a prosperous one too, although that might be asking a bit much in the current economic climate – I can say without fear of contradiction that this will be a momentous year on the Test scene, what with the seventh World Cup unfolding in New Zealand in September and October.

Unless something peculiar happens during the Tri-Nations tournament preceding it, the All Blacks will start as clear favourites to reclaim a title they last won almost a quarter of a century ago. At this stage of the game, it's difficult to see beyond a victory for the host nation, à la 1987.

Domestically, it was intriguing to see 2010 drawing to a close with some lavish pomp and circumstance in the capital: a north London derby between Saracens and Wasps that drew a big crowd to Wembley, and a south-west London derby between Harlequins and London Irish that drew an even bigger one to Twickenham. The growth of "Big Game" rugby at club level has been one of the most striking developments of recent seasons and it is right to pay credit to those men in suits who are responsible for making it work.

Unfortunately, few of the 60-plus players on show bought into the spirit of it. I don't suppose for a moment that Matthew Rouse, the supporter who won himself £250,000 by landing a ball on the Wembley crossbar at half-time, felt he had been short-changed by the rugby, and the same goes for all the performing artists who sang a song or two in return for big "wonga". But if truth be told, there was little in either match to set the juices flowing.

At Wembley, there was some enjoyment to be had from the personal duel between Owen Farrell, the teenaged Saracens outside-half, and Serge Betsen, that crafty old fox of a French flanker, and I was delighted to see that Sarries had the bottle to keep Owen on the field for the full 80 minutes. Such priceless experience is worth many a coaching session. Andy Saull, another of Saracens' bright young sparks, also caught my eye. It seems to me that he should be rated more highly by those with a handle on England affairs.

I watched events across town with something approaching disbelief as London Irish spent the afternoon battering away at the Quins defence, in old-school one-out fashion. What happened to their imagination and invention? What happened to their courage? Not so long ago, their excellent young coaching team could be heard talking in the boldest terms about players having a duty to perform with style and swagger. There wasn't much sign of these qualities last Monday, and I'll be interested to see if they can respond more positively when another struggling side, Bath, visit them today. It could be a pivotal game for both clubs.

All four London teams failed to convince, particularly when it came to probing the outside channels. There were any number of moments when attackers outnumbered defenders, yet these promising situations failed to yield anything positive. Many sides claim to embrace the concept of attacking with width, but if there is no understanding of what this entails tactically, or if execution is not up to scratch in the technical sense, it plays directly into the hands of any drift defence worth its salt.

This lip service is one of my bugbears, as is the current penchant for throwing long, lazy, looping and inaccurate spin passes – passes that encourage players to stand too far apart and do nothing for an attacking move apart from halt its natural momentum. Too often, we see people trying to operate deep behind "screen runners", or drifting across field rather than straightening the line. All this pedestrianism makes life easy for defenders.

Oh to see another Jeremy Guscott in the No 13 position. The "prince of centres", as Jack Rowell used to call him, had no truck with the comfort-zone style of attacking. Here was a player who ran wonderful lines that really threatened opponents, obliging them to take decisions they didn't want to take and forcing them to make tackles they didn't want to make. His understanding of depth and angles, combined with an ability to vary his speed in a manner appropriate to the situation, troubled the very best defenders and made so many things possible for the support runners who revelled in the space he created.

To all coaches who are serious about developing a potent attacking game, and to every young player in the country who wants to make the best of himself as a dangerous runner, I would say this: get out the DVDs of Guscott and watch a maestro at work. You'll learn something, I promise.

Strauss and Flower right to ensure that normal life goes on

There is an art to managing people in a high-pressure environment in a way that brings out the best in them, and from this distance – I've been watching events in Australia from the comfort of my home on the Lancashire coast – it seems the two Andys at the head of the England cricket team, coach Flower and captain Strauss, have mastered it. To retain the Ashes in such a commanding fashion in the hot-house surroundings of the Melbourne Cricket Ground speaks volumes for their handling of the squad.

If there have been any apologies from those commentators and critics who pontificated on the adverse effects of families and loved ones joining the players in Victoria over Christmas, or spouted forth on the dangers of Jimmy Anderson flying home for the birth of his child, I must have missed them. I've long been suspicious of the "boot camp" approach when it comes to preparing for a sporting challenge on this scale: as we saw when the England football team attended the World Cup, such spartan methods can add to the pressure rather than alleviate it.

For my money, normality of life is to be encouraged, not abandoned.

Win a mixed case of Sharp's beer!

Do you think you know your rugby? Do you want to make your voice heard? Do you want to win a delicious case of beer?

Tell us what you think about the state of the game in the comments below, and you could be in with a shot at winning 12 assorted bottles of Sharp's Brewery’s finest ales. including its flagship beer Doom Bar. Over the next month, Online sports editor Simon Rice will be watching the comments under Brian Ashton's Saturday columns like a hawk, looking out for the most interesting, thoughtful and provocative comments from readers. Is Brian on the money, or is he talking nonsense? What's wrong with the England team, who's going to win the Premier League, and are New Zealand really unbeatable?

Then, after a month's heated debate, Simon will pick his favourite comment to win that case of Sharp's beer. What are you waiting for? Put the rugby world to rights.

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