Brian Ashton: Wales must add grand ambition to Grand Slam
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 24 March 2012
My congratulations go to the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, his management team and the men of the valleys on recording another Grand Slam: no mean achievement whatever the circumstances and one that will give them real confidence for their trip to Australia in the summer. Gatland's laudable and entirely logical stated aim at this stage is to start winning games against the big three nations south of the Equator – something that has proved, and continues to prove, elusive.
Already the bookmakers' favourite for the top job with the British and Irish Lions when they take on the same Wallaby nation next year, Gatland will do his cause no harm at all if he can summon some eye-catching performances in June – always assuming, of course, that he has not been appointed by then. If he does succeed in landing the Lions role and manages to swing it with all four participating governing bodies, a few pre-tour attacking clinics, focusing on the midfield positions of fly-half and centre, would not go amiss. Unlikely? Probably, given the vested interests involved, but the concept is not, I feel, without its merits.
Warren will be aware that his Wales team, despite all the hype and wall-to-wall publicity generated by last weekend's Grand Slam victory over France, are not yet the finished article – that they will need to restore adaptability and creativity to their attacking game if they are to make the significant breakthrough they crave against the Wallabies. Variety, a virtue not unknown in Welsh rugby, will be especially important if the confrontational running of their big backs proves less productive than expected.
Think back to Wales' exciting encounter against South Africa in last year's World Cup. That day, the Welsh game-changer in terms of troubling the Springbok defence was the smallest man on the pitch: the retired and much-missed wing Shane Williams. I believe Wales still have the capability to play what I like to call "open-ended rugby" and feel strongly that this is the route they must travel if they are to push on.
When they arrive in Australia, they are guaranteed to meet stiffer opposition than that offered by the French in Cardiff. The scene was set – and the visitors' approach defined – by Lionel Beauxis and his farcical attempt at an early drop goal from somewhere close to the back end of beyond. French sides of years ago would have weighed up that moment a little differently and treated it as the first of many counter-attacking opportunities.
No longer, it seems. Their default position was deeply conservative, locked into a kind of sanitised rugby in which set-piece, defence and territory ruled. The infrequency of their attempts to break the chains was disappointing, given that we are talking about a nation who for decades thrilled neutral observers all over the union world with flamboyance and spectacle.
Continuing in this vein, can we honestly say that the tournament moved the game forward in any way? Were there really any revelatory moments when the paying public gasped with surprise at what was unfolding in front of their eyes? I'll leave the answers to those questions hanging, but I know from experience that a coach who dares to think and speak of doing things differently can, in many professional environments, be looked upon as a danger.
There is presently much speculation about the next England coach, to the extent that it has gone on ad nauseum, if not ad infinitum. In talking of England, then, I propose to take an alternative approach by paying a belated tribute to the Harlequins flanker Chris Robshaw, who successfully steered the ship through some very turbulent waters. After the pre-tournament injury to the Northampton forward Tom Wood (who still managed to appear in all the advertising paraphernalia promoting the competition), Robshaw was thrust into the dual roles of captain and openside specialist. Leading in an old-fashioned manner – from the front – he struck me as a figure of considerable composure, especially at moments when chaos reigned and the game seemed likely to drift away from his side.
I well remember the fears expressed over the prospects of a one-cap player taking on such a heavy burden in a position to which some felt he was not ideally suited. Wrong on both counts. He rallied his troops in time-honoured English fashion and personally gave no quarter to any of his supposedly more illustrious opponents. There may have been flashier players in the tournament, but few wore their national jerseys with such obvious pride.
A predictable mix of hard comment and emotional response has poured forth from the media in reaction to the confirmation that Danny Cipriani will return to England from Australia in time for the start of next season. I was unaware, frankly, that so many pundits know him so intimately: that there is such a profound understanding of what drives his ambition, of how his mind works, of the fundamentals that make him the person and player he is. May I now remove my tongue from my cheek? There, that's better.
Danny and I have known each other since I saw him give a masterclass of a performance at fly-half for Whitgift Under-15s in a schools cup final at Twickenham years ago. I will not dwell on his talents, any more than I intend to dwell on areas that are clearly in need of improvement. Those subjects are saturated already. What I will say is that I'm delighted he's heading towards the north-west of England and a new career in the Premiership with Sale. He will find it a totally different environment to anything he has previously experienced, to the extent that I consider this call to be every bit as brave as the decision he took to leave London for Melbourne.
The no-nonsense world up here could be the making of him. Certainly, he will be able to talk to, and learn from, some of the classiest midfield backs to be found anywhere in the world of rugby – even if they do play the 13-a-side game!
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