Brian Ashton: Retaining the ball, not wasting space, is the way to freeze out rivals

Tackling The Issues

They say lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Don't believe a word of it, for it does in the Ashton household. Having found myself being touted, to my considerable mystification, as a potential candidate for the England interim head coach position ahead of the Six Nations, I was interested to read this week that, once again, I was being lined up for a return to the national fold, either as attack coach or midweek coach on the summer tour of South Africa.

Predictably, this provoked an absolute barrage of phone calls about a story that had no legs whatsoever. Where do these fantasies originate? Do certain newspapers go out of their way to appoint people with Lewis Carroll-like imaginations whose role it is to invent such stories? If they do, it explains why the writers never check for authenticity. If you've made it up, there's nothing to check.

On a more realistic and infinitely more positive note, I spent three days of last week at the Rosslyn Park School Sevens. The competition produced some exhilarating action that begged an urgent question: so many talented players... where do they all go? Right down through the age groups – and across the sexes, for boys and girls participated – there was an impressive array of gifted individuals on view.

Much of the outstanding technical work was to be seen in the tackle area, with and without the ball, as referees allowed and encouraged a fierce but fair contest. I also saw a good deal of mazy, innovative, one-versus-one running skill; some sharp and accurate offloading; and, especially in the knockout stages, some deeply committed defensive work, be it of the head-on variety or in the scramble.

One of the threads running through the tournament was the difficulty many found in maximising opportunities when attackers outnumbered defenders. It was not a question of players' capacity to identify space and communicate the possibilities to others; rather, it was more about their ability to finish clinically and consistently.

The problem seems to be that much of the space created by a team is too often eaten up by the attacking runners themselves, rather than preserved. We need to press upon coaches and players the "fridge-freezer" mentality – "retain, don't consume".

The common fault was that many teams attacked towards the space they had created, thereby dragging scrambling defenders with them and giving them a chance to close things down. Pinning defenders in narrow areas of the pitch and leaving the wider areas exposed is a dying art in the game. Exhorting players to straighten up their running lines after they have received the ball is too late: the defence has already begun its drift. The ideal is to have the receiver hitting the ball in the act of attacking the defensive line. Guess what this encourages? Correct: the short passing game, the key that unlocks every door.

Players should be challenged to attack defensive pressure, not shy away from it: as a receiver you should attack the ball first, then the space between yourself and your opponents, then the spaces behind or outside the defence. In this way, you force defenders to calculate the risk of leaving tackles to their mates or taking them on themselves in the certain knowledge that in doing so, they may open up space elsewhere. In this way, a dynamic game of rugby chess is created: a game in which attackers seek to manipulate the opposition to their own ends rather than allow them the luxury of shepherding play towards the best defender of all – the touchline.

One of the tournament highlights from a personal perspective happened well away from the field of action. I was extremely fortunate to be invited to an evening in the company of Gareth Edwards. I know Gareth quite well, but it was still fascinating to hear him discuss his rugby philosophy and talk about the way he approached a game he mastered as well as anyone in history. Yes, he performed in a very different era, but the things that made him arguably the greatest player the game ever produced – enormous all-round talent, phenomenal reserves of drive and ambition – are timeless.

Briefly chatting afterwards, we agreed that modern-day coaches should reflect constantly on the way they operate – on whether they are experts at offering guidance, or whether they are merely expert interferers. Have players become too reliant on people who never set foot on the match-day pitch? I leave you to answer that one yourselves.


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