Brian Ashton: Sarries and Saints can challenge tenacious Tigers in the title race

Tackling the Issues
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Somehow, the sense of anticipation ahead of a new Premiership season is all the more acute when a World Cup is just around the corner.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that top-class club rugby does not have a value of its own, but when the major event in the sport is close at hand and we have spent a summer witnessing some tremendous southern hemisphere action, culminating in a truly exceptional Tri-Nations tournament, it is only natural to look at the coming English season from a global perspective.

The big players down south – most notably the All Blacks, who are some way ahead of the game at the moment – have demonstrated once again that in rugby, pace plus accuracy equals intensity. The heartening thing from England's point of view was that the last time they played, against Australia in Sydney in June, there was a recognition of this fact. For the first half-hour of that game, there was something genuinely threatening about them. I can only hope and pray that they don't revert to the heads-down, fall-over rugby they had served up in defeat in Perth seven days previously.

I've had my criticisms of Premiership fare in the past, but if the tournament picks up from where it left off in May – the Twickenham final between Leicester and Saracens was an exceptional contest, wholly worthy of the occasion – we'll be in for an invigorating few months. I suppose it's difficult to see past last season's top four this time round, with Leicester the team to beat once again, thanks to their physicality, the authority of their front-row play and the match-winning potential of a couple of special talents in Ben Youngs and Geordan Murphy.

That being said, I believe Saracens will challenge hard if they keep faith with the dynamic, innovative, challenging brand of rugby they put on show in the second half of last season, and it may be that Northampton will also push hard, although it seems to me that they have fallen between two stools in terms of style, as represented by their contrasting No 10s, Stephen Myler and Shane Geraghty. As for my old club, Bath – well, with Sir Ian McGeechan on the scene, there is at least a possibility that they will jump the last fence in the final straight and win a big race at long last.

Harking back to Leicester just for a second, I had to laugh at the reaction of the director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, when the No 8 Jordan Crane went on Twitter to inform whoever reads that stuff that his ankle injury would keep him off rugby for three months. "If he does that again," said Richard in characteristic tones, "I'll break both his ankles." It was a good point, well made. While there was a funny side to the incident, the coach in me says that players have no business making ill- advised, ill-informed pronouncements about their injury status. Next time, Jordan, leave the talking to the medics.

Down in New Zealand, all the talking is being done on the field. I've admired some of Australia's rugby this summer – last weekend in Pretoria, their "play to score" mentality made life very uncomfortable for the Springboks – but it is the All Blacks who have set the standard, both in the commanding nature of their performances at home and in the remarkable self-belief they showed in scoring two tries in four minutes at the death to wrap up the series in South Africa. Their ambition and creativity have been standout features for years now and those qualities make me wonder whether anyone from this side of the Equator can match them in terms of pace, decision-making and skill-set.

But they also are a couple of levels up from the northern hemisphere in the confrontational aspects of the game. While taking great care to stay on the right side of referees, they generate enormous heat around the tackle area. Some people up here have used the word "candyfloss" of the New Zealanders' free-running style. I think you'll find those who find themselves contesting the loose ball with the All Blacks – backs as well as forwards – disagree.

Between 2000 and 2003, years of rapid development for England in the Test arena, Clive Woodward identified half a dozen critical areas in which he felt the team had to lead the world if ultimate success was to be ours, challenging those of us in the coaching team to take bold steps to improve performance under such broad headings as "pace" and "width".

Here, in a new decade, it is the All Blacks who have made the significant strides in these crucial parts of the game. The way they have ripped through the Tri-Nations competition may seem a million miles away from how Saracens perform at Twickenham this afternoon or what Leicester do at Northampton tomorrow, but it all connects.

If England want to be the ones posing a serious challenge to the New Zealanders this time next year, the top clubs need to play with ambition and clarity now.

I've gone back to my coaching roots

You may have missed the news, but in my own quiet way I'm making my coaching comeback. Back in early summer, I returned to my roots in the North-west of England and immediately found myself being persuaded by my friend Bill Beaumont to spend a little time on the training field at Fylde, who play in National League Two with the likes of Preston Grasshoppers and Hull Ionians. I was only too pleased to help Mark Nelson, the head coach, in any way he saw fit, and I have to say I'm in my element.

In fact, I must be the luckiest coach in the world. For the fourth time in my career, I find myself working with Jason Robinson, a unique talent and true legend of rugby in both codes who has agreed to come out of retirement to play for Fylde while working with youngsters and liaising with businesses in the broader community. Does the old boy still have those dancing feet? Let's put it this way: anyone who fancies their chances of tackling him in a one-on-one situation is welcome to try.

Comments