Ashton: ELVs can be a global success

He swapped the bright, warm summer days of New Zealand for icy temperatures and glowering skies of the UK, when he returned home last month. But it wasn’t just the climatic element that influenced Brian Ashton’s mind on the differing standards of rugby in the southern and northern hemisphere at this time.

England’s coach at the 2007 Rugby World Cup was in New Zealand to undertake a series of coaching assignments. All Blacks coach Graham Henry worked with him at one such session.

Ashton took the chance to study the early weeks of the Super 14 and he admits he found much of it like a breath of fresh air. “Frankly, the whole environment seems to be different down there,” he said. “I know it is the national game there but there is a massive pride which I found exciting. Even watching the Super 14 matches, you sense that.”

But what of the rugby itself? Ashton admits he believes the ELVs have raised standards in key areas of the game across the southern hemisphere. “There is no doubt the game is quicker and the ball is on the field a lot more. Therefore, as a consequence of that, players have to make a lot more decisions on the move. They don’t get time to kick the ball off the field, have a rest and have a think about what’s going on. They’re being challenged mentally, as well as physically, the whole time.

“In other words, players are having to think on their feet. That is the way the (hybrid) ELVs have moved the game. It was evident in the autumn internationals last November in the northern hemisphere that the southern hemisphere players were pretty smart. Despite the pressures they are subjected to in a game, on most occasions they continue to keep their shape and structure and make the right decisions.”

Yet is it possible that despite this clear evidence, the northern hemisphere nations might force the abandonment of the ELVs experiment when the issue is debated in a couple of month’s time by the IRB? He cannot believe as much.

“It would mean going back to the old ways and I can’t imagine that will happen.”

But Ashton, probably the most innovative, inventive coach in England (which was probably why the RFU axed him from his post) says he isn’t in favour of everything the ELVs have produced. “For those sides lacking invention that kick the ball aimlessly down the middle of the field, it’s like watching Third division soccer matches where goalkeepers just clear the ball downfield.

“You need coaches and players with more of a creative mindset than that. They should be saying to themselves, ‘this is free ball; let’s get our counter-attack strategy sorted out’. If you adopt that mindset as a team you can do things with that ball when it’s kicked to you. But if you just shut down your game by hoofing it back, it takes away lots of possibilities of developing the game.”

For the ELVs to become a global success, says Ashton, everybody has to buy into it. But there remains considerable hostility to them in the northern hemisphere. Even this year’s British & Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan has called them a set of laws that make attacking rugby next to impossible.

Ashton adds: “If the coach doesn’t buy into it, the players certainly won’t. But if people have an open mind, they must surely see that it is possible to build your whole game around this new philosophy. The majority of possession now is from open play, including ball kicked to you. To me, that offers real opportunities; you can build something out of that possession.

“But I admit there is still negativity in the northern hemisphere about allowing the ELVs at all. I would say that the game has become no less difficult under the ELVs, but it’s also become a hell of a lot more dynamic. Players can now think on their feet and the ones that are capable of doing that are starting to stand out by their actions and skills around the field.”

Ashton isn’t surprised New Zealand players have demonstrated they have mastered many of the skills required to play this new game. He has a deep, abiding respect for rugby in this country. But the way another country has opened up and improved, has surprised him.

“Even the South African teams are beginning to embrace more freedom and creativity. The Bulls had been known for playing a very tight, structured game but this season they have opened up a lot more. The game is now allowing that and it is interesting that is the case.”