Brian Ashton: Many of the RFU 'suits' see me as the Anti-Christ of coaching
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 03 December 2011
I am old enough to remember the 1960s, and the ground-breaking satirical television programme "That Was The Week That Was".
How was the week that was for me? Let's say it had its share of irony and black comedy. There I was, sitting back in blissful relaxation and thoroughly enjoying life on the north-west coast when, suddenly, I found myself being bombarded with phone messages of the most surprising and bemusing kind.
While I was out of the house on Monday evening, I had 32 missed calls in 90 minutes – the vast majority of them to do with something entirely fictional: namely, that I had either been offered, or was about to be offered, a deal to return to the England coaching set-up in a caretaker capacity for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, which starts early in the new year. While all this attention probably didn't quite constitute harassment, it certainly led to some discomfort in the form of a rash of wholly unjustified headlines in the following morning's papers. It was a fabrication from start to finish and while this sort of thing has its amusing side, it can also be rather startling – even for someone who has had his share of headlines over the course of a lifetime in sport.
There's no smoke without fire, of course, and it has since become more and more clear that someone quite close to home started the rumours, although exactly what was said and on what basis, I have no idea. I'm in more of a mood now than I was a few days ago to laugh at the 24-hour frenzy, but there's a part of me that wants to cry at the lazy brand of journalism at the heart of it.
While I'm pretty sure I could do the caretaker's job, there are a couple of points to be made. Firstly, there is still no chief executive at the Rugby Football Union – still no one to report to; no clear idea of who has what influence, direct or otherwise, over whom. I'm also pretty sure that there's no chance whatsoever of anyone asking me to help out. Many of the suit-and-tie brigade attached to the governing body seem to regard me as the Anti-Christ of coaching because I don't happen to favour the traditional, common or garden approach to preparation and playing.
I'm far more interested in new ideas and I had the chance to indulge myself on Tuesday evening, at the back end of the frenzy (although a friend of mine tells me my picture appeared on breakfast TV as late as Wednesday). A group of Kiwis led by Brendon Ratcliffe, the ex-NZ academy manager and assistant coach to Wayne Smith at Northampton a few years ago, have set up a website (www.therugbysite.com) to share and spread coaching and playing knowledge throughout the sport. The list of contributors is impressive – among those involved from the All Black end are Wayne, Graham Henry, Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter – so I was somewhat taken aback, and extremely gratified, to be invited to provide the English input, presumably because the people running the show see something of value in my philosophy.
I insisted on making my initial contribution at Fylde, where I do the vast majority of my coaching these days: not just because it's handy geographically, although I've become rather fond of leaving my armchair and walking on to the field without having to cover too much ground in between, but because we have a group of players who, while not members of the "elite" in the eyes of the outside world, have been nothing short of fantastic in taking up the challenge of playing provocative rugby in a style that often flies totally in the face of orthodoxy.
And why shouldn't they, when you think about it? They play at level three, where the main objectives are still enjoyment and release, and there's no better way to achieve those things than by doing something completely different on a Saturday afternoon (this leads me back to last week's column and the comments of Leicester flanker Tom Croft about players taking more responsibility. Is there a touch of revolutionary thinking all of a sudden? If so, will it be encouraged, or will it be squashed by men in tracksuits with badges, awards and certificates to their names, and with employers looking over their shoulders? It remains to be seen).
On Tuesday night, the conditions were not what you would call ideal: we had gale-force coastal winds, intermittent driving rain and the unbridled pleasure of a 10-minute hailstorm that swept across the pitch, turning to sleet as it passed. It was perfect for the old-style bad-weather game: set-piece, kick and chase, shove it up your jumper. There wasn't a chance of that happening, though. Our session was based around playing a confrontational running/handling game underpinned by intelligent decision-making, all wrapped up in a dynamic up-tempo approach. Quite deliberately, I ensured there was next to no space available – and, therefore, only a bare minimum of thinking time. What I was looking for was an attitude of "when we have the ball we'll always be in your face; there'll be no hiding place because we'll always be looking for you". The short passing and ever-so-subtle changes in running lines required for this to be effective meant the inclement wintry weather had no impact on the players' skill set or, more importantly, their mindset. The enthusiasm was high even when things went wrong, due to mistakes by myself as well as the players. We all recovered any lost ground through a determination to push forward with the challenges we had set ourselves.
Things turned full circle the following day. The New Zealanders I'd been hosting for two nights left the house and normality was swiftly restored. I met some friends at the local boozer (runner-up in the National Real Ale Pub of the Year competition) after spending two hours walking the dog on the seafront, with big skies above, an expanse of water in front and plenty of time to think. Given the events earlier in the week, who would have imagined such a transformation?
A final point: I'm looking forward to viewing this afternoon's international between Wales and Australia, two of the brighter sides at the World Cup. I didn't see the Wallabies' victory over the Barbarians last Saturday, thanks to a power cut, but I'll make every effort to watch those two excellent open-side flankers, Sam Warburton and David Pocock, fight it out in Cardiff. I'm even more intrigued to see how the two outside-halves, Rhys Priestland and James O'Connor, go against each other.
O'Connor seems to be a phenomenon – certainly, there aren't many 21-year-olds with the best part of 30 caps in the cupboard. He's been through so much already, what with his stellar performances on the field and the odd disciplinary problem off it. Now, having spent all his time at full-back or on the wing, he's in a position where he can really influence the shape of a game. It would not surprise me if he could play scrum-half too, a little like a goal-kicking Austin Healey.
Which reminds me: one of those missed calls was from Austin!
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