Brian Ashton: Lee Byrne is right: Wales must think before kicking

Tackling The Issues
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The Independent Online

Not for the first time this season, I find myself thinking about some of the language commonly used by managers, coaches and players in today's game.

I've already had my say about some of the jargon I find exasperating – "drill", "breakdown", "ball-carrier", "going through the phases" – and after last weekend's round of Six Nations matches, I was left trying to make sense of another phrase. Martin Johnson, the England manager, said he thought his side had "played too much rugby" at certain times against Ireland. What did this mean, precisely?

From my perspective, I can only think Martin meant "too much ineffective rugby". At least, I hope this is what he meant. If players move the ball through the hands deep in their own 22, open up space for a runner coming on to the ball at the optimum angle and touch down for a try at the other end, it's difficult to imagine anyone applying the words "too much rugby" to what they've just seen. Rugby is rugby, and in a case like this, the amount of rugby played would be just right. The distinction we must make is between rugby that works, and rugby that doesn't work. As I've been saying for God knows how many years, it is possible to move the ball effectively from any area of the field, provided the players involved make the right decisions based on the situation facing them and execute their skills properly.

A coach might feel like kicking the cat if his players do the wrong things at the wrong times for the wrong reasons, but if he sends a team on to the field with the instruction that the ball is not to be moved in the 22 irrespective of the circumstances... well, that's very different, because we're then talking about rigid adherence to a "game plan", another phrase that makes me deeply suspicious. We are not talking rugby here; we are talking anti-rugby.

Imprecise language can send out mixed messages, but not as mixed as some of the stuff emerging from Wales over the last few days. For some time now, the coach, Warren Gatland, has been extolling the virtues of the kicking game, pointing out that the sides who kick the most – he has frequently cited his native New Zealand – are the ones winning the matches. Yet after their defeat by France, another contest in which they conceded a big lead before turning things round with some imaginative, attacking rugby, the full-back Lee Byrne could be heard arguing that Wales would do far better to move the ball earlier in an effort to impose their own tempo on the opposition.

What is really needed, of course, is flexible thinking from players willing and able to adapt in the face of prevailing circumstances. Is there any point in simply saying that a side should kick the ball more often? Not to my mind, there isn't. The art of kicking lies in the when, the where, the how and, most importantly, the why. Watch the All Blacks closely and you'll see the truth of this. Yes, they kick to relieve pressure, but they do it so smartly, so intelligently, that they often transfer that pressure to their opponents as a result.

I don't suppose I'm particularly associated with the kicking game, but I can promise you that I've never underestimated its importance. Remember, I come from rugby league land, and in that code a significant number of tries are scored direct from precise, cleverly thought out attacking kicks. During my first spell with England, I spent a good deal of time working with Dave Alred, the specialist kicking coach. He was in the forefront of developing the idea of the kick as the "forward pass" and I remember us using Ben Cohen, a tall and powerfully athletic wing, to great effect in this regard. Jonny Wilkinson, always able to put the ball on a sixpence, would kick high for Ben on the diagonal, forcing the opposition defence to respond in ways that fractured them elsewhere. It was a tremendous weapon for us.

The best teams kick as well as handle, but they always kick with a purpose. They never kick because they can't think of anything better to do with the ball. I've spoken before of my admiration for the Springbok scrum-half Fourie du Preez, so it should come as no surprise that I hold him up as an example of a player who plays as intelligently with the boot as he does with his hands. More than once, I've seen him kick diagonally straight from a free-kick to create a try for Bryan Habana – something that shows great vision and immediacy of thought as well as a mastery of technique.

Earlier this season, I saw the Toulouse scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde do something similar from a ruck, with Vincent Clerc touching down. South Africa? Toulouse? These are among the world's most successful sides. Why? Because they fill their teams with players who do things for a reason rather than simply hit and hope.

Sexton hits the ground running on fast track

Jonathan Sexton. There's a name to remember. I was particularly impressed by the new Ireland outside-half's performance against England at Twickenham last weekend. He played in an unassuming, quietly authoritative manner – no fuss and bother, no histrionics – and with a clarity that gave the visitors a threatening air. The film inside his head seemed to be running on fast-forward, such was his ability to see the shape of things ahead of him and sense what would happen next.

He was not fazed by playing alongside such luminaries as Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll. Quite the opposite, in fact. This, it seems to me, was one of the reasons why Declan Kidney, the Ireland coach, was happy to pick so inexperienced a No 10 ahead of Ronan O'Gara, who has won caps and kicked points in such quantities. Some people put the selection in the high-risk category, but Declan had seen enough of Sexton, both in training and in a Leinster shirt, to be sure of his ground. It may have been a bold move, and was certainly an exciting one. But risky? I don't think so.

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