Brian Ashton: White-line fever too often ensures good intentions are wasted

Tackling The Issues
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The Independent Online

Despite being condescendingly referred to as "a minnow of club rugby" by a national broadcaster renowned for charging us all an extortionate licence fee, Fylde had good reason to be proud of themselves last weekend after winning a first league title in their 90-odd year history – and winning it, I might add, with two fixtures to spare, having scored well over 1,000 points during the campaign and registered more attacking bonuses than any team in any division in the land.

More importantly, the players climbed this rung of the competitive ladder by showing what could be achieved, home and away in all weather conditions, by taking a positive, principles-based approach to the game.

There was also cause for celebration on the night before last Saturday's match with Manchester in National League Two North when Malcolm Phillips, the ex-Fylde and England centre who also served a term as president of the Rugby Football Union, and his wife Margaret threw a party to mark their 50th wedding anniversary. The turnout was tremendous, with many true "superstars" of the sport – I refer to those who achieved magnificently in the days before the cult of celebrity kicked in – enjoying the hospitality.

If one of the guests deserves special mention, it is not because he suffered the acute misfortune of coaching me for two years during my late teens. I speak of Bev Risman, one of the great men of rugby, and perhaps the greatest ever to cross the divide between the rival codes of union and league. An England outside-half of the highest class who toured New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions in 1959, he earned enormous acclaim for his contribution to a fine team performance in the first Test and virtually won the fourth (yes, fourth!) Test single-handed, scoring a spectacular solo try after recovering from a broken ankle suffered between the two matches.

Coming from a famous league background (his father Gus was a legendary figure in the 13-man game), it was inevitable he would turn his attention to that sport at some point, especially as he was more suited to it in terms of style and mentality. He played for Leigh and Leeds, captained Great Britain at a World Cup tournament and, by all accounts, does a fantastic job as president of league's governing body. Proof indeed that it is not impossible to be a great player and a great person – a point worth pondering after some of the things we've read over the last few weeks.

On a more contemporary note, I thoroughly enjoyed the Gloucester-Northampton game on Tuesday, which I attended courtesy of ESPN, who invited me into the studio to comment on proceedings. Kingsholm is one of my favourite sporting venues and I always relish an opportunity to visit. The old place looks disconcertingly modern these days, but it has lost none of its atmosphere. A noisy full house crammed in under the floodlights, with the Gloucester supporters at their most wittily inventive and passionate ... all this may be a pain in the arse for a visiting coach, but no one with a sporting soul could fail to revel in it.

Both clubs are jockeying for places in the end-of-season play-offs and had played in games that were physically and emotionally draining 72 hours or so previously, yet even in this attrition-driven professional era, they were blithely expected to put on a show. To their great credit, they managed to do so, producing a game full of twists and turns. Gloucester played some fast, adventurous rugby while Northampton, forced by the dictates of the Elite Player Squad agreement to start with an unfamiliar line-up, began with great confidence – a confidence possibly born of fear at what might happen against opponents who had themselves fielded an understrength side at Leicester, only to emerge with a draw in an 82-point thriller.

Whatever the psychological undercurrents, there was plenty to hold the attention. Despite all the positivity, however, both coaches will be privately cursing their teams' failures to leave Kingsholm with a bonus point – a winning one in Gloucester's case, a losing one in Northampton's. One of the key factors in this regard was an outbreak of the rugby disease known as "white-line fever" – something that can afflict even the most talented and experienced players when they cross into the opposition 22 with the ball in their hands and the scent of glory in their nostrils.

It tends to manifest itself in a series of one-out passes, accompanied by head-down, eyes-shut, battering-ram charges towards the goal-line. The vital attacking principles of recognising and using space, of believing in the process, and of understanding that the score will take care of itself if the basic skills are performed correctly and a little patience is shown, seem to go out of the window the moment the fever strikes. Communication breaks down and rugby sense disappears. The idea of the collective, of teamwork and mutual support, is totally disregarded, with the side metamorphosing into a group of individuals.

All clubs spend a good many hours practising defence in their own 22. Do they spend as much time working out how best to attack successfully when they play their way into the opposition 22? I think I know the answer to that one, and I'd stake a fair amount of money on it.

Healey's hot tip means that Burns is definitely one to watch

In my ESPN role, I had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with a couple of players from my time coaching England: Ben Kay, the Leicester lock who appeared in consecutive World Cup finals, and Austin Healey. Given the response Austin attracted from the supporters in the Kingsholm Shed, he is quite clearly a popular man in the West Country!

Austin was a unique figure in the England context, playing in every back-line position, often with great distinction. In fact, I would go so far as to say that of all the players I coached, he had the most positive mindset and the greatest understanding of attacking possibilities, with the added virtue of being able to translate ideas into reality. It was therefore interesting to hear him making complimentary remarks about the Gloucester back Freddie Burns, in whom, I suspect, he saw something of himself.

Judging by the way the youngster backed his skills against Northampton, it's clear that the Gloucester coach, Bryan Redpath, is encouraging him to explore every facet of his rugby nature, even the most creative and mischievous ones. That being the case, I can only say: Go for it, Freddie.