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Brian Ashton: Individuals make the best team players

Tackling The Issues

"There is no 'I' in 'teams'." Most of us who have been involved in coaching or management for any length of time are familiar with this well-worn phrase, which, given the frequency with which it is heard, might more accurately be called a mantra.

Like many snippets of home-spun sporting philosophy, it attempts to capture the essence of a basic truth: in this case, that the significance of the individual in a team game is as nothing compared to the importance of the collective. And like many of these one-liners, it misses the point.

Just ask Warren Gatland about the influence of individuals, their thought processes and their decision-making. I'd be very interested to know the Wales coach's private view on Alun Wyn Jones and his visit to the sin bin during last week's Six Nations scrap with England (although I can probably work it out for myself). And what about the interception pass thrown by Stephen Jones towards the end of the match? If these individual contributions were not absolutely central to the outcome of the contest, I was watching a different game to everyone else.

Here were prime examples of what I call the "critical moment theory" of top-level sport – instances of unpredictable and confused thinking by individuals operating in a high- pressure environment. And what is it that makes a rugby team? Fifteen individuals, all of whom are likely, at some stage or other, to find themselves making split-second calls in dynamic situations that, by their very nature, defy pre-planning. If one or two of those calls happen to be wrong, the balance tips towards the opposition, as Wales demonstrated.

I am deeply perplexed by this idea that individuals don't count. On this logic, why do man-of-the-match awards exist? (To digress for a moment, it was notable that all three gongs from last week's matches went to back-row forwards: David Wallace of Ireland, James Haskell of England and Imanol Harinordoquy of France. What did this tell us? In my view, it was indicative that each team, with the arguable exception of the French, made a cagey start to the tournament, sparring with opponents rather than attacking them with all their available weaponry. I didn't expect this from Ireland. It may be that they wanted to hold something back for today's big match in Paris, but at international level it's a big call to play within yourselves).

Again, if there is no real place for individuality, why do we have the cult of captaincy? Just recently, all three captains of our major team sports – John Terry, Andrew Strauss and Steve Borthwick – have, for very different reasons, dominated the headlines. While we're on this subject, I must say that Borthwick's last two performances for England may well have settled the very public argument concerning his place in the Test side. Only those who insist on viewing his rugby through very dark glasses will see it otherwise.

We hear so much about "leadership groups" and "core leadership" but, in my experience, the key factor in the development of a truly successful side is the presence of individuals in every position who are prepared and equipped to stand up to be counted at the moments of greatest intensity and perform their allotted roles to the best possible standard. I've spoken before of the elements that make up the high-level performance equation: the physical, the mental, the tactical and the technical. The higher the level of competition, the more ruthlessly an individual's weakness in any of these areas will be exposed. When that happens, the effect on the team – the collective – is often dramatic.

It seems to me that the "no 'I' in 'teams'" approach is fundamentally flawed. For want of a better word, it's a myth. It deserves to be treated with the same suspicion as other questionable phrases, like "game plan", and for the same very good reason: it takes no account of the "oh no, what have I done?" part of sport, which is always with us. People do daft things on the field, especially when the so-called "plan" doesn't work the way they expected and they find themselves wondering what to do next.

Everyone should take the field prepared to lead as and when the situation demands, because in a game of rugby it will fall on each player to make an important decision of his own, more often than not when things are going badly. If you have 15 people who can do this, you have a true collective and a true team. A team made up of individuals.