Brian Ashton: In the 'gods' it's easier to see who's slacking and who's tracking

Tackling The Issues
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The word "overview" is an important one in rugby: it was the transparent lack of one that cost my old club Bath a valuable victory over Biarritz in the first round of Heineken Cup matches – a calamity from which I'm still recovering!

The thought occurred to me when I found myself enjoying what you might call a literal overview of last weekend's Amlin Challenge Cup game between Leeds and Stade Français from a television gantry at Headingley.

Watching a rugby match unfold from an elevated position is always fascinating; indeed, I would venture to suggest that the ideal vantage points are always high up in the "gods". During my time with England, I would often join other members of the coaching team, usually Phil Larder or Dave Alred, in seats at the very top of the Twickenham stand and pass messages to Clive Woodward via radio link. There is no place for the lazy player to hide when he's being tracked by people who can see exactly what he is doing, or rather, what he isn't doing, and anyone taking a breather from the responsibilities of front-line decision-making is immediately found out.

I vividly remember an occasion before the 1999 World Cup when I sat with a very young Jonny Wilkinson, watching England play a warm-up game against a team drawn from the northern Premiership clubs at Anfield, of all places. In the first half, we chose seats at precisely the viewing level Jonny would have had if he had been out there on the field. In the second, we retreated to the very top of the stadium and looked down on proceedings. Jonny's reaction was interesting. "I didn't realise how much space there is on a rugby field," he told me. As an exercise in building awareness, what we did that evening was a great success.

Of course, the trick is for a player to see the same, wide-view picture of a game when he's out there in the thick of the action. This is where intelligently thought out coaching scenarios come in. Rugby is a game of "what ifs", and if coaches can find inventive ways of building problem-solving elements into their training programmes, their teams will quickly reap the benefits on the field.

Too many people assume that the important decisions are the sole preserve of the man with the No 10 on his back. I have long subscribed to the view that additional pairs of eyes and ears in less congested areas of the field are vital. The inside-centre position is crucial here, as is the role of the full-back, who can take a panoramic view of a game. Any full-back worth his salt should be able to offer succinct, instructive comments to his colleagues 20 minutes into a match, highlighting any defensive idiosyncrasies he may have spotted among his opponents that might be worth exploiting. Far from simply concentrating on his "own game", he should be thinking, calculating and advising on a minute-by-minute basis.

Some players – and they are rare indeed – have the capacity somehow to rise above the contest and give themselves an overview while embroiled in the heat of battle. Sean Fitzpatrick, the great All Black captain, could do it, and when he was asked how he had developed this priceless quality, he replied: "By becoming a student of the game." I had the good fortune to work closely with two other members of this select group, people who happened to come from the same family. I played alongside the England No 8 Dick Greenwood, whose innate sense of the way a game was shifting allowed him to make correct decisions under pressure. Happily, there was something in the genes, for Dick's son Will had a similar ability, to the extent that he was probably the most intelligent inside-centre communicator I've seen.

Which brings me to the forthcoming internationals and the two brilliant "overview" specialists who are heading our way: Daniel Carter, the All Black stand-off, and Quade Cooper, his opposite number with the Wallabies. I've watched both men carefully in recent months and I have a suspicion that they are consciously trying to take the orchestration of rugby into new areas. In particular, they are organising and manipulating those playing further up the field in a way that allows them to pick and choose the optimum moments to intervene personally.

This is clever stuff – there are shades here of Shaun Edwards in his days as the ultimate match-winner in rugby league – and it depends on a number of interlocking factors. For one thing, it cannot work unless the man pulling the strings has sufficient authority and strength of character to persuade his colleagues to take on the extra workload involved in freeing up a single individual. A complete team buy-in is essential. For another, it takes a person with the breadth of vision we see in someone like Carter to gather all those strings together and make the game dance to his tune. I look forward to watching them close-up in November.

Every man for himself in 'meat' market

Flicking through the television channels the other day, I came across an interview on Sky Sports News with Roy Keane, the manager of Ipswich Town, and almost fell off my chair. Asked how Wayne Rooney should approach the next episode of the saga surrounding his position at Manchester United, Keane said he should think only of himself, adding: "After all, players are only slabs of meat." During the 12 years I spent working at the top end of professional sport, I had my share of dealings with executives, managers and coaches who patently considered players to be just that. But to hear it stated so openly and explicitly on TV was scary. Aspiring youngsters, beware!

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