Brian Ashton: Promote positivity as the antidote to fears of relegation
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 14 May 2011
Despite generating more than its fair share of tension – agonising tension as far as those languishing at the bottom of the Premiership are concerned – the bizarre second division Championship scenario does not appear to have many supporters, either inside or outside the game.
Many critics can be heard advocating the ring-fencing of the elite league, with a three-year franchise format the most popular model. This idea has been kicking around for years now, but there is suddenly a fresh surge of energy behind the argument that it should become reality.
Among those who back ring-fencing, there is an assumption, tacit or otherwise, that the removal of the relegation risk will "free up" the club rugby produced in this country and turn it into a more "attractive spectacle", whatever that means. Perhaps they hope to see some English replicas of the Crusaders-Sharks Super 15 show laid on at Twickenham a few weeks ago, although anyone who watched the Sydney-based Waratahs' attritional battle with the Perth-based Western Force last weekend will realise that life is not all champagne and pyrotechnics down there below the Equator.
Speaking as someone who has coached for many moons, at all levels of the game, I have to question this assumption. I am not at all sure that by eliminating relegation the powers that be would make any kind of initial impact on the quality and style of rugby played at the elite end of the English league structure, let alone a significant one. Fear of losing is endemic in professional sport across the spectrum and while the pressure may be less intense when there is no risk of falling through the trapdoor at the end of a campaign, any meaningful change would require a transformation of the general coaching mindset that could not happen overnight.
There is little doubt that at a relatively early stage in the Premiership season it is clear which of the sides are likely to be involved in a battle to avoid the drop. The theory then goes like this: to survive, these teams must play in a low-risk – preferably no-risk – manner, limiting themselves to a narrow approach specifically geared to the avoidance of defeat. It won't surprise you to learn that I beg to differ with the theory. Has anyone considered the possibility that by following such an unenterprising course, teams might actually deepen the hole in which they find themselves?
In January 2006, I returned to one of my old haunts, the Recreation Ground, for a second stint with Bath. At the time, they were embroiled in what looked suspiciously like a looming relegation scrap and had locked themselves into a remarkably restrictive, proscriptive way of playing the game. The so-called "playbook" was as thick as an encyclopedia and was said to hold all the answers to all the questions. There were no-go areas all over the pitch from which attacking rugby was not encouraged, and the mantra of "field position" had taken on the weight of the word of God. Three international backs had left as a result of this policy, a downward spiral was in motion and the atmosphere was riddled with fear.
Fortunately, there was a strong, talented group of players at the Rec, people who were both willing and equipped to address the situation in a different, challenging way. Together – and it had to be a joint venture – we developed a mentality under which every piece of possession was viewed as an opportunity, rather than a threat. To put it at its most simple, we replaced negatives with positives. As a result, we quickly moved away from the relegation zone and made it all the way to the last four of the Heineken Cup.
Most players, it seems to me, relish this kind of challenge and feel liberated when it dawns on them that many of the things considered too risky are in reality nothing of the sort. There is no rocket science here: this is all about intelligent decision-making, rooted in simple rugby logic. There are three key elements: identifying an appropriate attacking shape; getting the players to work hard on the skills and techniques necessary to bring that shape to bear on the opposition; and encouraging what I call the "play to score" mindset. This is a very different philosophy to the one that says "when in trouble, don't try anything".
Many teams of all standards function through a series of patterns and systems based around tight organisation and pre-planned plays. In attack, players "carry" the ball, set "targets" and are encouraged to retain possession by "going through the phases" without considering for a moment the ever-changing dynamics of the game evolving around them. Others, far fewer in number, prefer something a little more ambitious. They do not shun organisation, but they deal in strategic overviews, in general principles of play, in interpretation.
To my mind, there is no disputing that this method is more potent. It is, however, more of a long-term project, requiring consistent hard work, considerable patience, a good deal of mutual trust and a deep sense of belief. Which is why, I suppose, so many teams avoid it, especially when relegation rears its ugly head. However, when fully operational, the rugby it produces is effective in all environments, however, difficult. Yes, even when the trapdoor is starting to open.
Redpath deserves reward for putting Kingsholm back on map
I was delighted to see one of the more enlightened coaches in the Premiership, Bryan Redpath of Gloucester, being offered a contract extension at Kingsholm. During his days as Scotland's scrum-half, he was one of the most incisive, innovative No 9s around. Happily, he is gradually bringing those qualities to his work in one of the great hotbeds of the English game and turning the Cherry and Whites into one of the most interesting sides in the country.
With a judicious mix of personnel – youngsters as vibrant as Charlie Sharples, Henry Trinder and Freddie Burns are operating with some very knowing old heads – Gloucester have produced some thrilling counter-attacking rugby this term.
It may be a little too early for them to win the title, but they already have one trophy to show for their season's efforts and I sense they have won the hearts of the Kingsholm faithful into the bargain.
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