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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'
TVGrace Dent thinks we should learn to 'hug a Hooray Henry', because poshness is an accident of birth
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax

Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt

The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game