Brian Ashton: Thinking on our feet is the best game plan

Tackling the issues
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Despite the fact that the season is still unfolding, rather like the way we stretch and yawn when first awakening, I have been fascinated by the number of games where teams have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Only last weekend, Harlequins and Bath, both at home in hugely attractive Heineken Cup ties, lost games where they had seemed to be heading in the right direction for victory. Quins led Toulouse 14-0 at half-time yet lost 19-23 while Bath were 21-9 up on Stade Français who still managed to leave The Rec as 29-27 victors.

These are not the only games this season where the art of game management has been less conspicuous than you would wish.

It is important to understand how to win a game of rugby – and that requires as much work off the pitch in terms of reciprocal discussion with players as it does on it. If we ask ourselves why a game can be lost from an apparently winning situation, a combination of fatigue, which leads to technical mistakes, and anxiety, which can lead to decision-making errors, provides part of the answer.

But game management is essential. This means understanding how, where and why to play next in the context of any given moment in a game. Players must be able to adapt in both thought and deed to work this out and put it into operation.

The question is, do we actually prepare players to manage a game properly, or do we reduce their capacity to think for themselves, express themselves and make defining decisions in the heat of battle?

How much time is allocated to game understanding and preparation proportionate to its importance on match day? Understanding the game is probably the most important cog in the wheel of success. Because if the preparation comprises an exercise in box ticking – scrums, line-outs, defence, kicking, etc – that are drills and game plan-based and the week ends with unopposed or semi-opposed team runs, game understanding is unlikely to be enhanced.

There are implications at all levels, and this is a massive coaching challenge in the development of younger players. If we expect players, in the white-hot atmosphere of a contest, to implement correct decisions, the preparation should reflect this.

I have found that a lot of work can be accomplished off the field with open and interactive discussions with players. Talk to them, get their views, their suggestions.

Often, a player will shy away from expressing his thoughts to a coach or rugby director if such thoughts are not invited. Equally, the man in charge embarks on a voyage of discovery when he sits down with a group of players and makes it clear he wants an genuine exchange of views.

I remember a discussion I had with three front-row players, all now first-team regulars with their Guinness Premiership clubs, on the subject of counter-attack. One by one they expressed surprise that I would ask them about counter-attack on the basis that, "Hey, what do we know about such things? We're scrummagers." So I told them that when the ball next went off the field, they might as well go with it as they weren't contributing to the team effort.

Instead of standing there, watching a game of tedious aerial tennis develop, why not get back and help out, think on their feet how they can contribute? To a man, the three took this on board and I've watched with some satisfaction all three in action this season, working in reaction to what was going on around them.

Giving more time every week to practising all the "what if?" scenarios such as sin-binnings, injuries to key players, the interpretations by different referees of an identical situation, the collapse of a secure game area such as the line-out, is probably practically impossible. But if such situations are discussed fully then they will not prove to be totally unfamiliar.

I have long held the firm belief that operating solely with game plans is not enough. You can have plan A and plan B for dealing with Munster/ Ospreys/Leicester/Biarritz, but when they do something you didn't expect, when a moment of magic unravels your plans, then what?

I've seen this happen, seen talented players looking bemused towards their bench, seeking guidance. Plans A and B have failed, now what ?

The answer is understanding game management, but players need to have the confidence to function as individuals as well as in a team, to take big decisions not scratched out across a blackboard during the week, decisions in immediate response to what's happening around them.

Loose cannon locks on to targets

I was delighted to see Matt Banahan playing so well last weekend. I've known the lad for years, switched him from lock to wing as a teenager, and was thrilled for him when he made his England debut against Argentina during the summer.

I admit that I considered his game during the second half of last season went off radar somewhat, in that Matt was running all over the field seeking collisions, which meant he became a one-dimensional threat.

But there's more subtlety to Matt's game this season and he is showing his wide range of running, handling and kicking skills, all prerequisites of attacking space. Used with or without the ball in this manner, Matt represents a real and constant threat to defences.

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