Brian Ashton: Secret of Saints' success: three coaching brains behind the team's brawn

Tackling the issues

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:24

Three rounds into the new Aviva Premiership campaign, only Northampton have yet to be beaten.

It may be that by close of play tomorrow, they too will have tasted defeat: they face a tough match at Saracens, the team who gave them more trouble than anyone last season and have recovered quickly from losing at Twickenham on the opening weekend. But Northampton themselves appear fully rejuvenated after the disappointments of April and May and it is a sign of their rapid development that expectations are so high. We should keep reminding ourselves that this time three years ago they were spending their Saturdays visiting the likes of Launceston and Sedgley Park in the Second Division.

I like the way they play: direct and physical, they work hard in defence, show great clarity and certainty with or without the ball, have the ability both to play with width and to hit the short side, and can keep opponents on the back foot with their kicking game (especially teams who have neither the skill nor the inclination to counter-attack – such teams still exist, even in this day and age.) They have an all-court game, spiced with the razor-sharp interventions of Ben Foden from full-back and the instinctive try-poaching of Chris Ashton on the wing. Ashton is quite something at the moment. It's all in the name, I suppose!

Given my long association with Bath, I was intrigued to see how my old club would handle their visit to Franklin's Gardens eight days ago – not least because they were the only other unbeaten side in the tournament. To be frank, Northampton did a demolition job on them, especially in the second half, when their rugby metamorphosed into something very impressive indeed. It seems to me that, in common with other high-performing sides around the world, they are veering back towards an old-fashioned approach built on judicious use of personnel and a deep-seated sense of purpose.

You have only to look at the performances being delivered by Dylan Hartley to see the truth of this. I know Dylan well from my days running the national academy and I have never been in any doubt that he can contribute at the very highest level, provided his natural aggression is properly channelled and the need for responsibility and accountability is impressed upon him. Northampton pulled a master stroke by making him captain, for his rugby is now on a tremendous upward curve .

Such intelligent decision- making does not come as any great surprise to me, for a clever, pragmatic, all-English coaching combination operates at the heart of the club, providing an excellent technical framework in which gifted players like Hartley can flourish. Jim Mallinder, Dorian West, Paul Grayson... I've had the good fortune, indeed the privilege, to work with the three of them down the years and I know from personal experience that they bring to the party a range of special gifts, contrasting but highly compatible.

Jim is a knowledgeable rugby man blessed with an unusual degree of game understanding gleaned from the years he spent as a top-class full-back – a position that offers the observant individual a panoramic view of the sport: its simplicities and complexities, its possibilities and realities. In addition, he has a far harder edge than people assume when they make his acquaintance for the first time. Jim may be one of life's good guys, but never make the mistake of thinking he's soft.

Dorian and "soft" have never gone together: a product of the school of hard knocks at Leicester, he has always had a front-rower's appreciation of the value of intense physicality. Yet in his own inimitable way, he also has an eye for rugby's subtleties and sophistications. Yes, honestly! I've discussed and debated these things with him more than once and witnessed some of his highly effective skills sessions, in which he encourages forwards to pass the ball before contact. Very trendy, you'll agree.

As for Paul, he is best remembered by those who don't know him well as a kicking outside-half of great ability, as befits a man whose football career took him to the dizzy heights of Accrington Stanley. I have tended to see him very differently. To my mind, he was, and remains, a genuine student of the game – a highly intelligent sportsman equipped with the many and varied qualities that go to make up an outstanding coach.

Together, the three of them have these qualities in abundance: an appetite for hard work, a sense of humour and, most importantly, a sense of life perspective. What is more, they steer well clear of the publicity machine that seems to drive more and more of the people involved in rugby. I expect great things of them.

'Shadow man' Walder gains substance

I call David Walder the "shadow man".

A talented, multifaceted outside-half, he spent his Newcastle career in the shade cast by Jonny Wilkinson and then found Danny Cipriani hogging the limelight at Wasps. He is the main man at Adams Park now, and I was delighted to see he delivered a match-winning performance against Leicester last weekend.

However, what really caught my attention was his mention of a part-time coaching role at Rosslyn Park. David said the experience had increased his own game understanding, and I could see his point. The All Blacks coach, Graham Henry, has described Daniel Carter, the world's best No 10, as his "coach on the field".

If that's the case, logic says that outside-halves who take the trouble to get their hands dirty by helping out other teams will give themselves an advantage. Who knows? We might finally see the demise of coach-driven decision-making when the game is actually being played.

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