Brian Ashton: The best are ready to rumble through the international jungle

Tackling The Issues
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The Independent Online

Now we are just about done with the Octoberfest – or, in Saracens' case, the Oktoberfest – we can look towards the November Test-fest and ask ourselves the usual question: is it meaningful, or meaningless?

A lot has been said and written just recently about the ever-increasing volume of international rugby, and depending on where you sit, cross-hemisphere matches between teams at the start of their season and opponents at the end of theirs are either full of importance or empty of significance. This much is certain: many of the finest players in the world will be in these islands over the next four weeks or so, and if they bring the best of their ambition with them, we stand a fighting chance of witnessing something memorable.

I take a purely academic interest in international affairs these days, so my overriding urge is to see the leading performers, many of whom see qualification for the knockout stage at next year's World Cup as a minimum requirement, operating in their natural habitat, rather than in an unnatural one dictated to them by a group of people who will never again set foot on the field. I've made no secret of my admiration for the likes of the New Zealand outside-half Daniel Carter and his Wallaby counterpart Quade Cooper, so now they're on their way here, the prospect of watching them navigate their way through some high-pressure encounters, drawing on all their instinct and imagination as well as skill and technique, is a thrilling one.

The landscape of rugby at the world level has become kaleidoscopic in its dynamism and excitement: the scene changes constantly, more through accident than design, and teams must get up to speed quickly if they are to survive and thrive in what can easily become an extremely hostile environment. The successful ones will be those who make the best use of their road map – who recognise both the departure point and the destination, and understand how to get from one to the other.

This is where decision making and direction taking in the 9, 10 and 12 positions are crucial. Test match journeys are never certain and seldom smooth: there is nothing of the comfortable departure from Heathrow and the soft landing in Auckland about them, particularly when the men from New Zealand have made the trip in reverse and are standing on the other side of the halfway line. Rather, they resemble a set of criss-cross paths deep in the forest, and the ones who emerge into daylight will be those who make the right choices at the right moments.

All the leading players are equipped with the tools, both physical and technical, to complete the task in hand. I have no doubt about that. The question is this: do they have what it takes in the more abstract, less easily defined areas of sporting endeavour? Do they have the right mental equipment? And if the answer is "yes", do they have the courage, and will they be given the freedom, to use that equipment to the fullest extent? Rugby should be about simplicity and clarity, but too often, coaches complicate it to such a degree that the players find themselves lost in a Hampton Court Maze of confusion.

It has long been a central part of my thinking that preparation is about situational coaching: that is to say, the presentation of problems that require individual players to show leadership and take responsibility. Only in this way can the key virtue – adaptability – be developed. It is adaptability in both the mindset and the skill set that sets the great practitioners apart.

My mind goes back to one of the seminal moments in sporting history: the heavyweight title fight between my hero, Muhammad Ali, and George Foreman, down there in the jungle of Zaire. It took Ali about 45 seconds to realise that his preferred style of boxing, the kind of boxing that came so naturally to him, stood no chance of being successful in the heat and humidity of central Africa. He adapted on the spot, understanding that if he was to emerge victorious, he would have to visit the very extremes of physical pain and mental pressure. He made that journey, and in doing so, changed the way many of us looked at the world and its possibilities.

This, it goes without saying, is the hallmark of the true champion. The man in the arena, alone in his vulnerability, who reacts bravely and intelligently to a particular set of circumstances and then becomes proactive in finding a way to bend them to his will, is the man who achieves the ultimate. Rugby, a team game, is very different to an individual pursuit like boxing, but it is a game of physical and mental extremes, and the two sports have pressures in common. We are at a late stage in the World Cup cycle, and many of the people best placed to dominate that tournament will be playing here during November. In that sense, what we are about to watch is very meaningful indeed.

Vickery's leadership inspired such confidence in everyone

Phil Vickery's retirement, announcement on Thursday, touched a nerve with me and brought the memories flooding back.

I coached with Phil at international level between 1998 and 2002 and quickly came to regard him as a world-class operator. Back then, before the injuries really kicked in – and I wonder whether anyone has ever shown greater resilience in refusing to let such injuries end a career – he was something more than a magnificent tight-head prop, although that would have been enough. He brought added value to a team, and added value is what a coach hopes and prays for in a player.

But that was not the half of it, for Phil brought added value off the field as well. His ability to get along with everyone, combined with a quiet authority which persuaded the noisiest and most opinionated individuals to shut up and listen, was priceless in bringing people together. It was why I made him my England captain in 2007. He inspired confidence and loyalty to such a degree that his colleagues, and I include myself in this, would have trusted him with their lives.

If I am sorry he is lost to the game, I'm happy he can walk away from it in one piece, taking with him the respect of everyone who worked with him. He was one of those in rugby who understood the importance of treating people properly. For that, and for many other things, I thank him.