Rugby Union: Five Nations - Ashton's Ireland taking right direction

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The Independent Online
Brian Ashton, the Ireland coach, hopes his side will finally equal the sum of the parts and make a vital winning start against Scotland in the Five Nations' Championship in Dublin today.

Ian Stafford talked to him about the massive job he took on.

One year ago Brian Ashton was hailed as the new saviour of Irish rugby, largely because of a brave but nevertheless heavy defeat at home to the French. It left the former Bath coach wondering just what had he let himself in for.

"It was a real warning bell for me because I thought, if they're happy when they lose, we've got major problems," he said. Now, on the eve of this season's Five Nations' Championship, Ashton has a clearer, and not particularly encouraging idea.

"We are the least professional Five Nations country, and I expected changes to be made which haven't been yet," he is quite happy to reveal. "Until we start enticing our players back to Ireland, which will mean a complete overhaul of the domestic game, we're going to struggle. That's why I have to depend on English-based players. I don't want to do this, but I don't have much choice."

Ashton's injury list has hardly helped matters. Short of world-class players at the best of times, Ireland have lost the services of players as good as Jeremy Davidson, Simon Geoghegan, Jim Staples and Jonathan Bell. "We obviously don't have the strength in depth like the English, so we're bound to be hit harder by such losses. But the bigger problem has been Ireland's struggle to produce a professional game at home, which would keep the best players over here."

Incredibly, murmurs of discontent about Ashton's six-year contract have already began. Ireland finished bottom of the Five Nations table last year, lost heavily to New Zealand and by a closer margin, to Italy, before Christmas, and enter today's widely considered wooden spoon-decider against Scotland in Dublin with little to suggest their barren run will end.

Ashton takes all this on the chin. "It's difficult to argue against that case," he agreed. "I suppose it depends on both sides to prove the doubters wrong. We just need a little time. Don't forget, I was brought into the team a week before the first Five Nations game last season, and only began my official appointment last April, since when I've been in charge for three games.

"I think people were expecting a dramatic change in fortunes, but it's obviously going to take some time. I'm well aware that results are the most important aim, but I'm not going to revert back to type just so that we can claim a win. The progress we are making is more important than that."

It is here that Ashton holds out hope. Last April he told me he aimed to coach Ireland back up to England's level, and therefore world level, by the year 2003, which would mark the end of his contract. One year on he still maintains this goal.

"It's still possible, but the Irish public and rugby supporters are going to need to show some faith here. At least we've all identified the type of rugby we want to play, which is the type I've always promoted and now seems to be the accepted approach by most countries.

"I also expect us now to be competitive for 80 minutes, instead of an hour we've played before. We have 12 English-based players in the side, so there shouldn't be any excuses there.

"I think the hardest barrier to clear is just the habit of losing. I'm not certain the players have the confidence to win matches, at least not in an Irish green jersey. It's amazing , really, to see them on the training pitch.

"There they work as hard, and look as good as any other team in the Five Nations. When they play for their clubs they are used to winning matches, but as soon as they wear the green of Ireland the inhibition factor comes into it."

A win tomorrow could change everything. "I really think that's all it could take," Ashton said. "It would break that losing habit and give the team a great deal of confidence. It would mean that we could look forward to the rest of the Five Nations in the hope that we could get at least one further win.

"But I'm not going out just to win. The way we play, in the long-term, is far more important, than kicking our way to victory for the sake of a result. That's been part of the problem in the past. A win at Twickenham would make everyone satisfied, regardless of whatever else happened in the Five Nations. Now, though, there's no way we'd get a win at Twickenham, not until the work's been put in. It's already started, and I'm hoping some of this might begin to show."

With this in mind the beleaguered Scots would seem to be the ideal opposition for Ashton's men. Their pre-Christmas programme was as disastrous as the Irish, and with internal ructions rife, they appear to be ripe for further defeat.

Ashton has two ways of looking at this. "That's certainly one accurate theory, but the other one is that they, under Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan, will be fired up to the hilt to perform against us, and we've got to be very careful.

"Still, I know what we can do. I know that I have a lot of talented players who have not done themselves justice yet, and if we can play to the best of our ability, then I am pretty confident we'll get the right result."