Brian Ashton: The intensity and ecstasy create a buzz like no other

Tackling The Issues
Click to follow

It is unique. I can think of no annual international team tournament anywhere in the world that rivals the Six Nations Championship in heightening the emotions and captivating the mind.

For the players, it is both physically demanding and mentally draining. For the coaches – and I have first-hand knowledge here – it is an all-consuming experience, bordering on the claustrophobic. For the supporters, it is irresistible. What other event drives so many people with no hope of laying their hands on a match ticket to travel around Europe at considerable personal expense, just for the fun of being in the proximity?

To them, it is almost an annual holiday. To those directly involved, it is most certainly not a holiday, of any description. The Six Nations is an unusually intense amalgam of tradition, long-standing rivalry and partisanship in which success depends on a team's ability to come up with something new in the face of age-old familiarity. For much of my lengthy involvement in the tournament, it was the French who generally threatened to produce something different. I am not sure if this is still the case: they lost much of their unpredictability under the leadership of Bernard Laporte, and while there are signs that his successor, Marc Lièvremont, has recaptured something of that glorious spirit, his inconsistency as a selector seems to me to have been an inhibiting factor.

Maybe the Irish, winners of the 2009 championship in the Grand Slam style, will be the first to show they have added something to their game. Certainly, I'm impressed by the way Brian O'Driscoll is speaking about his team's approach to the next seven weeks. Ireland may have scaled the peak last season, but even though that achievement meant so much to them they are showing no signs of relying on a 12-month-old brand of rugby. O'Driscoll says that to defend the title successfully, they have to start over rather than attempt to pick up from where they left off. They have to "earn it all over again", to borrow his phrase: last year was last year, it's done and dusted. He's absolutely right.

From the coaching perspective, expectation at this time of year is never less than overwhelming. There are those who might put Italy in a slightly different bracket to the other countries, but even they have their dreams, their hopes, their challenges. There is always a feeling in the English camp that they are the No 1 target for everyone else, but the tribal nature of the Six Nations is such that each individual fixture has a special resonance of its own. Today's England-Wales match has dominated the build-up, but if we fast-forward seven days, we see two fixtures – Wales-Scotland and France-Ireland – that promise to generate just as much heat. There has also been much talk of teams keeping half an eye on next year's World Cup. The reality is that for the duration of this competition, there can be no distractions. The luxury of building a team at 18 months' distance irrespective of immediate results is not something modern coaches expect to be granted.

My Six Nations experience began in the days of the old Five Nations: I coached Ireland through a tournament before joining the England staff under Clive Woodward. Then there were two championship campaigns as England's head coach. Clive always said that the Six Nations was more pressurised, more intense and more difficult to negotiate than the international series against the big southern hemisphere sides before Christmas, and I found that to be true. There is something about the fervour of tournament rugby that raises the temperature. It's that claustrophobia thing, I guess.

As head coach, you never switch off. You eat, drink and sleep rugby, constantly turning the tiniest details over in your mind. There is no break, no let-up. Everything is pushed through you, from the big issues – how are we going to beat this lot on Saturday? – to the small ones, concerning this player's fitness programme or that player's recovery session. The job involves working out the optimum time to travel as well as the best time to train. Believe me, five major Test matches spread over seven weekends is seriously demanding, and managing a squad of players through that kind of fixture list is no easy matter.

Things have changed significantly since I last coached England. I seem to remember that before our match with Wales two years ago, eight of the 12 Premiership teams played the previous Sunday – a less than ideal situation that left us with one meaningful training session ahead of the international. Now, most of the squads spend around eight weeks together. What would I have done with the extra time? Part of me would have wanted to send the players home halfway through, on the basis that I was sick of the sight of them!

Seriously, I would have placed increased importance on my off-field coaching to reflect the physical and mental state of the squad. There are times in the tournament environment when players become drained. It is not difficult to tell when it happens because they look dead on their feet, yet some coaches stick to a rigid training regime regardless. To my mind, it is infinitely better to say to the senior players: "Right, we're not going near a rugby ball today. Sit down here, tell me what you think about things and let's see if together, we can't come up with something fresh."

This is the challenge: to make it new. Not just at the start of the championship, but as you move through it. In this age of all-seeing video analysis, flexibility and adaptability are everything. If a team enters a Six Nations without the ability to change their game from one match to the next – even from one 40 minutes to the next – they will find themselves in big trouble.