Brian Ashton tells Hugh Godwin of the Independent on Sunday about his National Academy vision for England's future.
We all know the historic attractions of Bath - the abbey, the Roman baths and the Georgian architecture - but if you take a minor detour up to the city's university campus on Claverton Down you will have a glimpse of rugby's future. The university's Sports Training Village is base camp for the Rugby Football Union's National Academy, the vehicle for driving the next wave of England World Cup winners.
During this half-term week the focus is on the Junior National Academy, comprising 18 of the country's finest players in the 16 to 19 age group. Under the tutelage of Brian Ashton, the National Academy manager who also oversees the Senior National Academy contingent of 16 players, the juniors receive one-to-one coaching and mentoring designed to enhance their core skills and offer something not available in their school or club environment.
"We work with the players in the four areas which make up our high performance model," said Ashton, the respected and highly experienced former Bath, Ireland and England backs coach. "These are skills and elements of competence; fitness; tactical and game awareness; and personal attitude. The junior academy was selected from last season's Under 16, 18 and 19 age groups or from recommendations from regional academy managers or the National Academy coaches. We are looking for a guy with the �wow' factor - someone who has all round competence in those four areas but something special in at least one of them."
Those selected for the junior academy might say "wow" themselves when they first see the university's facilities: two rugby pitches, an Olympic-standard gym, 50-metre swimming pool and 100m running track. Their academy camps dovetail with the school timetable - the next and final one is in December - and then the boys will enter an intensive 10-week programme of England Under 19 fixtures in the new year. The attention to detail at the academy is mind boggling - or should that be eye-goggling?
"We have an additional research element to what we do," said Ashton. "We examine the physiology of hydration and recovery, and we have hypoxic training where we simulate the conditions you find at altitude. Then there are three sets of special eye-goggles which are designed to analyse the players' peripheral vision and communication."
The goggles bring a dash of "Mission Impossible" technology to the task of beating an opponent or running a planned move. Ashton explained: "It is always easy for a coach to demand of a player �why didn't you do that?' or �didn't you see the space?' With the goggles on, a player is put into a decision-making position and a little red dot on our screen traces his eye movements which in turn shows us his thought processes. The goggles also pick up sound so we can hear communication from one player to another. Some say nothing at all, others are trying to write a book on every move."
The simple virtues of catching and passing, kicking and tackling are well catered for, too. The academy programme includes a formidable team of coaches in John Wells, Jon Callard, Nigel Redman, Dorian West, Tosh Askew, Jim Mallinder, Mike Friday and Damian McGrath. Why so many, Brian? "They all have specialist skills," Ashton said. "Each coach will mentor the relevant players, so Jim Mallinder for example will work with the full backs and wings. In between the training camps they watch them play and keep in touch with their schools and clubs."
There was an Intermediate National Academy last season but this has been revised, so the next step for the juniors will be the Senior National Academy, which currently includes the likes of Stuart Hooper, the lock forward from Leeds Tykes, and London Wasps' highly rated flanker Tom Rees. But a bolter from either National Academy could be called up at any time by England head coach Andy Robinson.
"The Senior Academy is for players who are on the fringe of the England elite player senior squad [EPS]," said Ashton. "They have massive potential to go forward and play for their country - indeed, Mathew Tait has already done so - but they need individual work to continue to improve. I'm quite keen with the senior academy to simply sit and talk to them. They should have got to a good level of core skills by now but what, for instance, are their views on counter-attack? It's the game understanding we can work on. To find out what they know and to challenge them about what they think. And they can challenge me."
This two-way street is fundamental to the unique Ashton approach which, in years gone by, has got the best from Bath and England stars such as Jerry Guscott and Iain Balshaw. "I try hard not to use the word �winning'," Ashton said. "So many times I've seen coaches drum into players that they must win - and then they have nowhere to go if they lose. I'm a massive believer in players playing to their potential, and that each time they wear the jersey for them to lift that potential. If they all do that, more often than not they will win the game.
The Senior National Academy players are most likely to represent England this season in either Under 21 or England A matches, or in Mike Friday's Sevens squad. Ashton will, for the first time, be in charge of the England A team's fixtures during the RBS 6 Nations Championship, and against the Barbarians and in the Churchill Cup. "Until we get to the international games this is all about player development," said Ashton. "This is the third year of the national academy and the standard of player is getting better and better."