10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
One of the most refreshing things about Ashton's regime is his new-found philosophy on game plans. In a recent press interview he was quoted thus "I give a fair amount of responsibility to the players to do what they feel is best on the field. We just provide a framework in which we want to play with one or two directives of how we think the game can be won."
"My answer is no, you don't need a definitive game plan," he said. "You back your players to be able to adapt on the day like our players did last night.
"Ultimately when they cross that white line and go on the pitch then it's their game - it's not my game anymore."
I say 'new-found' because of course, in Ireland, when one thinks of Sir Brian and post-match comments regarding game plans, we are more likely to remember the one he provided after his Ireland side had imploded against Scotland - 'I don't know whose game plan that was, it certainly wasn't mine'.
Nevertheless, he seems to have moved on in his thinking on game plans since then. It raises an interesting question about game plans - to have them or not to have them?
Perhaps even more fundamentally, the issue goes to the heart of the way that teams and players are being prepared in the modern age. Talking to a former Irish international schoolboy a few weeks ago, he made the point that the Irish players seemed happier in the build-up to the France match than the Georgia match because they were going to be playing a team they knew better and therefore knew what to do against them. The point was made by some in the camp that they didn't know what to expect against Georgia, whereas they would all have their individual videos on the French team. This seems to go to the heart of modern player preparation, where even club players want to be told what to do.
Funnily enough, in my days as a club player this became something of a hot potato. In the early nineties, game plans were of the Brian Ashton variety - 'a framework in which we want to play with one or two directives on how we think the game can be won'. When former Irish coach Gerry Murphy took over as our coach, it became a lot more structured with a planned sequence of four or five phases becoming the norm. And you could see the thinking. If the backrow know where the backline or the kick is going off each individual phase then they can get there quicker and everybody's a lot happier.
As outhalf on the team, it was my job to run this system which led to some Orwellian ponderings in my little head. Is it better to subjugate oneself to the system or to adopt a more individualistic stance? The answer lies, as in many things, in a little of both. Yes, it is good to have a general understanding of where the next thrust will take place, but that should never be at the expense of taking opportunities as they arise. Did our club team benefit from the additional structure brought to our play? Or did it detract from it? There was little conclusive proof either way to be honest, as previously we had done pretty well on the understanding that we were going to run pretty much all that we could and tire out what were almost always a bigger opposition pack, before winning it in the last twenty minutes.
Disappointingly, most of the top nations seem to have evolved a game plan for this World Cup that revolves around kicking the ball as high in the sky as they can and having a willing chaser go after it. We were told in advance that this was going to be the most physical world cup of all time. No argument there. But it has also been the one with the least amount of impressive backplay.
Geordan Murphy's try against Argentina has been, for my money, one of the best tries of the tournament because it featured a skill that was a throwback to the old days. What Brian O'Driscoll contributed to that try was a throwback to the old days when centres would routinely beat their man by throwing in a shimmy while the ball was in the air. O'Driscoll's jink and change of line while the pass was in mid-air beat the defender all ends up. Haven't seen it at international level in years. Bravo!
Other than that, it has been, with the honourable exceptions of the Fijians, New Zealand (though, even they, reverted to pick'n'go under pressure) and Wales, a tournament dominated by defence and high-kicking.
For that reason, I wasn't unhappy to see Argentina go out last night. For all the talent they possess in Hernandez, Felipe Contepomi, Pichot and Corleto, they showed not a scintilla of ambition as a backline. I would rather have seen Loffreda select Hernandez at fullback, with Corleto on the wing and Todeschini at outhalf (as it happens he has as big a kick as Hernandez). Hernandez has a bucketload of talent, but to see it used simply to kick deep and high was disappointing. While they broadened their horizons somewhat against South Africa last night, it is difficult to change dramatically when you have been one-dimensional for so long.
Not that South Africa have been the most attacking of teams. However, in Francois Steyn they do possess one maverick that is prepared to take a risk. While they prospered off Argentina's errors, the one try they created themselves owed a lot to his triple miss pass that got the ball into the hands of Bryan Habana with sufficient space to do what he does best. Steyn makes a lot of errors (and one misguided counter gifted three points to Argentina), but he also provides a spark of invention in a tournament that has left a lot to the imagination.
Having gone out with a flawed game plan against New Zealand, France survived the experience by the players reverting to their running strength to seal a memorable win, However, they again went out with a conservative plan against England that succeeded only in playing to English strengths and ultimately paid the price.
Where Ashton's game plan (minimal in terms of its invasion and ambition) has succeeded, it is largely because he had in Wilkinson, an out-half that understands the team's strengths and limitations. He also commands the respect of his team-mates to the point that they are never going to second-guess his decision-making.