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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 November 2005, 18:10 GMT
Ashton's legacy
By Pranav Soneji

When Brian Ashton first took charge of the national rugby academy in August 2002, he was a one-man coaching team.

Former academy head coach Brian Ashton
We try and work in conjunction with the clubs, but inevitably there will be differences
Brian Ashton

Fast forward three years and the newly-appointed Bath head coach will leave behind a team of eight full-time coaches surrounded by some of the most advanced technology used anywhere in modern rugby.

Although Ashton will relinquish his academy duties at the end of the year, interim head coach Jim Mallinder will have a seriously tough act to follow.

Based at the hi-tech University of Bath Sports Village, the academy acts as the umbrella which encompasses the junior and senior national academies, England under-19s and 21s as well as the England A and sevens sides.

Ashton's main responsibilities were with the junior and senior academy squad, where 34 of the most talented and promising rugby players from across the country gather to further their rugby education.

"The objective is to improve these boys in a whole variety of areas in the game of rugby as individual players," Ashton told BBC Sport during one of his last junior academy training sessions.

England Academy coaches
Interim academy manager: Jim Mallinder
England A coach: John Wells
England under-21s assistant coach: Dorian West
England under-19s coach: Nigel Redman
England under-19s assistant coach: Damian McGrath
England sevens coach: Mike Friday
England sevens assistant coach: Phil Greening
Kicking coach: Jon Callard
"We don't actually operate as a national academy team - it's all about individual development."

When he accepted the challenge back in 2002, Ashton consulted his then cricket counterpart Rod Marsh, who had recently set up the national academy, as well as observing how Manchester United's youth system worked so successfully.

But he was determined his national academy would have its own unique rugby modus operandi.

"It's my philosophy that drives it on and I've developed it over the three years I've been in the job," said Ashton.

"But ultimately we have to find our own way of doing things. What we don't want to do is copy anyone from other sports or from the world of rugby.

"Once you start copying them then inevitably you'll be behind them. I look for challenging, ambitious, technically accurate and unpredictable play that is different.

David Doherty of Leeds scores a try in training with the England academy
The junior academy squad in action

"The players will know the more licence they have on the field to interpret the game, the higher the standards that will be demanded of them.

"It's all about setting a framework and demanding those high standards. I believe in giving players freedom but that doesn't mean they can do just what they like out there.

"I expect them to perform to their potential initially but to move up a level every time they play."

The junior national squad meet up four times a year between August and December on intensive week-long camps.

While a huge emphasis is placed on developing core skills such as passing, tackling and kicking, Ashton also incorporated a significant cerebral element into the players' development programme.

Former academy alumni who are now full England internationals:
Matt Stevens: Prop
Olly Barkley: Fly-half
Ollie Smith: Wing/centre
Mathew Tait: Centre

Each player undergoes a series of psychological classes designed to stimulate cognitive processes with the purpose of developing them into thinking rugby players.

This mental awareness, along with their progress on the pitch, is consistently monitored through individual mentoring sessions with one of the eight full-time coaches at the academy.

The information is also fed back to each player's individual club to keep their coaches in the loop about their progress, a factor which Ashton admitted could cause the odd problem.

"We try and work in conjunction with the clubs, but inevitably there will be differences - all coaches are different in some way or another," he said.

"But as long as we're working towards the same outcome then I don't believe it's an issue.

"I'm a massive believer in individuality in coaching and encourage all my coaches to be different as long as we're all working towards the same objective."


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