Brian Ashton: St George in different league to any players on Six Nations duty

Tackling The Issues
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The Independent Online

It was what you might call a rugby-fest weekend.

I watched from the touchline as Fylde beat Manchester 92-6 in a National Division Two game – 14 tries, every last one of them scored by a back – before casting an eye over three Six Nations matches and a Premiership contest on the talking box in the corner. There was also television coverage of a top-end rugby league game: the World Club Championship between Wigan and St George Illawarra, and I have to say that union coaches could do worse than study the way the Australian league players have mastered the core skills of running, with or without the ball, and handling.

These skills are common to both codes, but in some respects the league game was a league apart. There was no aimlessness, no drifting around; no one spun out counter-productive mispasses that removed the sting and threat from an attack. We see so much of this in union these days, but the elite Australian league players have no truck with it. Instead, they generate tremendous pace, run outstanding angles from depth, change the momentum and focus of attack with wit and imagination, and handle the ball with unerring accuracy.

This is what we call operating at the "apex of the high-level performance pyramid": maximum speed, no compromises in technique. In layman's terms, it means people playing flat out with no mistakes. If I'm being frank, none of the union games I watched at the weekend came close to this ideal.

In addition, I was struck by the rich variety of kick-to-score ideas and techniques that now seem to be in vogue among league players. To my mind, these are the products of a wholly different coaching mindset to the one with which we've become familiar in union. One short aerial-jab-kick on the run was nothing less than a masterpiece of vision and precision. As it was impossible to defend, it inevitably resulted in a try.

On the union front, there were things to admire about the England victory over France, although I'm sure Martin Johnson has already tucked it away in the drawer marked "history". What is becoming clear is that the teams who display the most intelligence in handling transition rugby – that is to say, who make the most productive use of turnover ball – are the ones who spend the most time on the front foot and, far more often than not, go on to win.

Not too long back, there was a thorough statistical analysis of the sources of attacking possession. Set pieces accounted for anything between 25 and 35 per cent of a team's ball, while turnovers were in the 65-75 per cent range. That is a big gap in anyone's language, yet many teams base their game preparation on plays from scrums and line-outs. Can this be sensible? You do the maths, and make up your own minds.

This point was reinforced in the Scotland-Ireland game at Murrayfield. Ireland were clearly the better side, but not for the first time in recent matches, some abject indiscipline went a long way towards maintaining their opponents' interest in proceedings. It is, however, one thing being in the game on the scoreboard, and quite another knowing how to handle it on the field. Given the importance of victory at Test level and the current law interpretations that favour teams who are purposeful and accurate with the ball, I was surprised – to put it very mildly indeed – to see people kicking it away with abandon. It was as if the majority of those on the field were more comfortable dealing with pressure without being burdened with the additional responsibility of possession. The Scots, three points behind with eight or nine minutes left on the clock, were particularly guilty, and this might have something to do with their current difficulties.

Turnover ball of any description – from scrum or line-out, from the tackle area, from a knock-on advantage, from free-kicks and penalties, from ill-directed opposition kicks – is the rugby equivalent of a gift from the gods. Free and unexpected possession, in a broken-field situation with all its attendant chaos? What more could a team ask? If players understand their roles and responsibilities when it comes to creating order from this chaos, the attacking opportunities are limitless. Yet still we see people being coached to create order from order, which is what the set-piece obsession amounts to. How does this address the reality of the game? It doesn't.

Many moons ago, on the mainland of Europe, I first heard the phrase "relieve pressure by creating it where least expected". The ability to do this is at the heart of most, if not all, top-level success in a dynamic team game like rugby. Kicking turnover ball away when your opponents are at their most vulnerable does not fit this mindset.

In my day, a hat-trick meant it was your round at the bar

Where have rugby union's traditional values gone? In the aforementioned Fylde game, three players – both wings and the scrum-half – scored four tries each.

Being blessed with an eye for opportunity, I politely reminded one of the wings that according to age-old custom, a hat-trick of tries or more warranted the purchasing of a jug of ale. The wing replied, with a perfectly straight face, that he'd be delighted to accept one!

When I pointed out that he was the one expected to put his hand in his pocket, he responded in typically bizarre fashion – they're an odd lot, wings, and always have been – by mumbling something about having to buy a jug of vodka because he didn't actually like beer. As for the other two scorers, they scarpered, double-quick. Me? I gave up and went home.

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