Brian Ashton: Why can't more players think for themselves?

Tackling the issues
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The Independent Online

I was struck by the comments of Bryan Redpath, the director of rugby at Gloucester, after his team's emphatic win over Bath on the opening Sunday of the new Premiership season.

He spoke afterwards of "player responsibility" – an important subject about which many coaches up and down the country talk a good deal, but only in the sense of paying it lip service. Bryan was absolutely correct in saying that when players take the field, what happens next is down to them. But how many people in the professional game genuinely take this seriously?

It seems to me that many coaches are still obsessed with another, very different idea: that of the game plan. I've never had much liking for "game plans". In a sport as dynamic and full of movement as rugby union, any expectation of a game going completely to plan is totally unrealistic. Yet so much training time is spent putting together a "plan" without any thought being given as to what might happen if, as generally happens, that plan fails to work. When players spend all week preparing to follow a very specific tactical blueprint, is it really surprising that they struggle when they're suddenly asked to think on their feet?

Not so long ago, I found myself in discussion with Graham Henry, the head coach of the All Blacks. When I asked him what made Dan Carter the brilliant outside-half he is, Graham replied immediately: "He can coach the team on the field." In other words, Carter has such a highly developed understanding of the nuances of a game as it unfolds, and such an awareness of the different options available in any given situation, he can adjust his side's approach to suit the moment.

Adaptability is the key word here. The more structured the rugby environment, the less adaptable a team is likely to be. Educationalists talk about people becoming dependent learners rather than involved learners and I see this in modern-day rugby all the time. Why does it frustrate me? Because it inhibits people. It is far more challenging, and ultimately far better, for a coach to encourage freedom of thought and interpretation – to offer players a tactical framework rather than weigh them down with tablets of stone.

During Clive Woodward's time with England, he ran a little experiment with myself and Phil Larder, the defence coach, asking me how I'd attack Phil's defence and asking Phil how he'd defend against my attack. Phil said he couldn't be confident of answering, because he considered me "unpredictable". It was the biggest compliment anyone ever paid me in my coaching career.

It was Clive who first used visits to the Royal Marines as part of England's preparation for major tournaments. The Marines are massively into individual leadership and talk constantly of performing in the face of "dislocated expectations". You can see their point. In the middle of a battle, it's a bit difficult to say: "Let's stop fighting for a minute or two while I get my head around this situation I didn't see coming." I repeat: rugby is about making the right judgements under pressure, not following an instruction manual.

Watching last weekend's round of Premiership matches, I was highly impressed by Shane Geraghty's performance for Northampton against Worcester. Shane moved from inside centre to outside-half midway through the second half and took the game by the scruff of the neck. His decision-making, allied to his excellent range of skills, was central to Northampton's victory and, to my mind, it was the performance of an intelligent, intuitive player. In short, he took responsibility in a difficult situation and found a way of guiding his team through it.

Responsibility in rugby matters in a variety of different ways. By getting himself sent off within 40 seconds of the start of the Harlequins-Wasps match, George Robson acted with a high degree of irresponsibility. I'm reluctant to point the finger: for all I know, this was completely out of character. But Quins, who have quite enough on their plate, hardly needed to play all but a minute of a big derby game with an important forward sitting in the dressing room.

Going back to Northampton, I see they've given Dylan Hartley the captaincy. I worked with Dylan at the national academy and I know him well. There's no denying that he has a wild streak, but he is also an outstanding rugby player blessed with considerable natural gifts. In the past, opponents have gone after Dylan and provoked a reaction. He cannot afford to react now. By giving him added responsibility, his coach, Jim Mallinder, is attempting to ensure that his energy and aggression are properly channelled and focused. I'll be disappointed if it doesn't work out that way.