Brian Ashton: Leinster beware – you mess with an Ashton at your peril
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 21 May 2011
Surely it is the fervent wish of most of those involved in this sport of ours that the talking points thrown up by today's Heineken Cup final in Cardiff concern the quality of the contest on the field.
Please, please: no more adolescent punching or vitriolic outbursts from coaches for whom the margins between genuine passion and a deep-rooted desire to shift blame have become worryingly blurred. We can also live quite happily without players tweeting their thoughts to the world, especially when they use deeply inappropriate political metaphors in an effort to make their point.
Ultimately, I suppose, all the above are reflections of modern-day society, and in this sense, should we really think of this behaviour as unusual, or be surprised by those who would argue for leniency and raise all manner of mitigation in support of the perpetrators? For my part, my hero of last weekend was Chris Ashton, the Northampton wing thumped so publicly by the Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi during the Premiership semi-final at Welford Road. He demonstrated that a man bearing his surname and hailing from the district borough of Wigan, who happened to learn his sporting trade in the 13-a-side game, can take a punch, ride its effects and forgive. The lesson? Ignore the Ashtons of this world at your peril! They'll always bounce back and bite you one way or another.
Let's shift the focus to this afternoon's climax to the European season. The most intriguing question surrounds Northampton's ability to hit the ground running, mentally as well as physically, following last weekend's bruising defeat. Have the scars healed? They were out on their feet at the end of the Leicester game and little wonder, given the enormous pressure they were forced to absorb and the huge tackling load they found themselves carrying. Add the post-match distractions preying on the minds of the players and it's clear the coaching staff have had their work cut out.
I'm sure Jim Mallinder, Dorian West and Paul Grayson – a back-room team who have been gaining valuable hands-on experience virtually by the game – will have identified the issues and set about their jobs in a thoroughly professional manner. Jim has impressed me for a while now and, in his past-match interview at Welford Road, he was outstanding in his calm, considered handling of a difficult situation. Together with his close colleagues, he will have provided his players with an intelligently pieced-together timetable of rest and recovery, combined with a fresh focus geared totally towards the task in hand.
If I'm right in my suspicion that Northampton go into their final with Leinster as slight underdogs, they can draw on it: when you're cast as outsiders, why not use it as a two-fingered, up-yours motivational tactic? But they must take a positive approach. If semi-finals are notorious for generating an all-embracing restrictive mentality, finals should always have a sense of anticipation and potential enjoyment about them. They offer an opportunity to puff out the chest and show real courage in all its facets.
Neither Northampton nor Leinster will be found wanting for courage in the physical sense. It is mental courage that is likely to be the key factor. There will have been much talk in the rival camps of bringing everything to the table today, of not leaving ammunition locked up in the armoury. But who can translate the message into action most effectively amid the hurly-burly and the hostility?
We're talking here of my favourite high-performance topic: namely, who will have the balls to summon a flash or two of paradigm-shift thinking, a "something completely different" spark that can upset the rhythm and change the nature of a contest, thereby taking the opposition by surprise, sow confusion and force them on to the back foot, even if only momentarily? I always found this to be the most exciting part of the challenge when, from the late-1980s to the mid-1990s, I had the good fortune to be involved with a Bath side who made regular visits to Twickenham cup finals.
It will be fascinating to see when and how such moments unfold. They cannot happen unless two crucial elements underpinning winning rugby in the big-game environment are put in place. The first of these is the establishment of a superior work rate, both with and without the ball. Adrenalin will help the energy levels in the first quarter, but it is the team with the greater mental fortitude who will gain the edge in the final quarter, when the critical moments arise.
The second element concerns basic skill and technique, which must stand up to the severest scrutiny under pressure. This is most obviously based around the set piece and the tackle area, but as sides in different parts of the world have been demonstrating, accuracy in executing core skills away from the major "collision" phases can open up avenues of opportunity even when the quality of possession and precise nature of field position are less than ideal.
This is a contest to relish, staged in an arena – the Millennium Stadium – fit for the occasion, especially if they shut the roof and guarantee optimum conditions for the players. The winner? Leinster's all-court game should nudge things their way, but this doesn't mean I rule out the possibility of an underdog upset. How's that for an exercise in fence-sitting?
Roses-tinted view of the amateur era
There was a time when the County Championship was an important stepping stone to higher honours, especially for us northerners, and many veterans of battles past congregated last weekend for the Lancashire-Yorkshire match at Fylde.
This particular local argument began, as the historians among you will know, as far back as 1485, and has continued in all areas of sport – and indeed life – ever since, generally in a good-humoured fashion.
The game itself was pretty ordinary, but it was a good excuse for a catch-up. A former England coach and three former England captains were among the friends and playing acquaintances from years gone by who were present, and, of course, we indulged in maudlin reminiscences about the amateur era and all its faults.
In light of my comments at the start of this column, we must all be deeply thankful that the game turned professional!
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