The curve ball was delivered from left field, and although Brian Ashton did not see it coming he played it as best he could. With Lansdowne Road being rebuilt, Ireland will play England at the Gaelic Athletic Association's Croke Park in Dublin next month, and Ashton was asked, in the light of a "massacre" there by British soldiers nearly 90 years ago, if he would prepare his team with a suitable history lesson. "I'll have to think about that," he replied. "It hadn't crossed my mind."
In Ireland, politics, religion and sport are not always divorced, as Ashton discovered when he coached the Irish national side in the mid-1990s. "I won't go into the problems I encountered there because we all want to get home tonight." It was a strange appointment, almost as strange as the question about Croke Park, a stadium which was named after Archbishop Croke of Cashel in 1913.
What attracted Ireland to Ashton - his reign lasted less than two years, he had signed a six-year contract and he ended up with shingles - was his fabulous record at Bath where, from 1989 to 1996, he produced one of the best club sides in the world.
Like his predecessor as England's head coach and one-time protégé Andy Robinson, Ashton is not comfortable with politics. That can be left to Rob Andrew, the elite rugby director. One of the battlegrounds in the club-country conflict is the amount of training time the players have with England. "It's nothing to do with me," Ashton said. "That's out of my control."
What is now in his complete control is the coaching of England, a job he has reached at an age ripe enough to qualify for a bus pass. "It's a fantastic honour and a privilege. You set your sights to get to the top and not many people make it. I'm really enjoying it. Mind you, we haven't played a game yet."
Ashton is happiest out in the middle of the training field in a tracksuit, and there were signs last week that the England squad are already buying into his philosophy. "It was fantastic," he said. "The players said I had put a picture in their minds and they filled in the detail. They effectively ran the session themselves."
When he worked under Clive Woodward from 1998 to 2002 England ran rings round the opposition, scoring tries galore. It was exhilarating stuff. The backs, principally Jason Robinson, Will Greenwood and Ben Cohen, were scoring tries right, left and centre, but then they had a great pack and Jonny Wilkinson was filling his boots. This time Ashton's inheritance has no such capital gains. "Forget the past," he said. "This is a very different England and I hope you'll see that."
There are words, he says, that are not in his vocabulary: "drills" - "it conjures up an image of soldiers marching around a barracks in an advanced state of misery"; and "high-risk rugby"- "I'm not interested in risks, I'm interested in winning."
The image of Ashton is of an avuncular, homely Lancastrian who is proud to display a bottle of HP Sauce on the table to go with his hotpot, and everything else, but he is a lot more complicated than that. He left England in 2002 to run the National Academy, and the reason invar-iably given is "personal reasons". He fell in love with a woman who was not his wife and they have been virtually inseparable ever since. It involved the painful break-up of two families. It happens. He won't talk about it, but for a while a lot of people in Bath talked about nothing else. At the time his new partner was the press officer of Bath RFC, a role she now fills at Bath University where, coincidentally, England have set up their training camp.
Ashton, who never cared for the isolated splendour of Penny-hill Park, the plush headquarters under Woodward, likes the new arrangement, although he had nothing to do with it. "We are not stuck in the middle of nowhere," he said. "We are a few minutes from the middle of town."
And that will make for a happier squad. He has met Andy Robinson, also a native of Bath, a couple of times since Twickenham's autumn purge. "Andy wished me good luck and that's about it." Robinson was fiercely competitive and patriotic, and the impression is that the quietly spoken, more laid-back Ashton is a different animal. It is a misconception.
He may be a romantic figure to the backs, but he is as ambitious and pragmatic as any Red Rose northerner. "After leaving England I hoped and prayed I would be given an opportunity to resume coaching at international level, and when it came all my instincts were to pursue it. We have lost eight of our last nine matches, and that's a massive reality check. There'll be no bullshit rugby this season. It's back to square one. We've got to get our foundations right. There is no point saying we are going to play like this or that. It's not a question of turning my back on my philosophy. Back to basics has always been part of it. The first thing I insist on is getting the scrums, line-out, restarts, the tackle spot-on. It's not a given, and if you get those wrong you can't begin to play.
"Ultimately I don't care how we win. We're in a corner and we've got to fight our way out of it. On the ladder of world rugby we're here." Demonstrating with his finger, he placed England seven rungs from the top.
Ashton said he had "no idea" of his team to face Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday. Not true, of course. "I know in my head, but it keeps changing. Unless the players are clairvoyant they don't have an inkling."
He said that apart from the captain, Phil Vickery, everybody was fighting for places. "It's brought the best out of them. Training has been very competitive." And woe betide anyone who makes a mistake.
When he was playing Merlin on the banks of the Avon, Ashton recruited Jason Robinson and Henry Paul on short-term contracts from rugby league, and now he is looking forward to working with Andy Farrell, the wonder from Wigan who converted to union in 2005 but whose game time has been strictly rationed by injuries. Ashton - he was a scrum-half with clubs in Lancashire, France and Italy - sees Farrell at inside-centre, and never understood why Saracens played him at blindside flanker. "He has a wide range of skills, a good understanding of the game, leadership qualities, etc etc. I first met him by accident at St Helens, where he told me he wanted to be the best rugby union player in the world. I don't know whether he will become so, it's impossible to say, but that's his mindset. He thinks he's ready. He was arguably the best rugby league player in the world."
So Farrell is finally up and running, but Ashton got a taste of the frustration that stalked Andy Robinson when last week's training was attended by no fewer than 21 support staff, dealing with the battered and the lame. For starters the back three of Robinson, Mark Cueto and Paul Sackey were sent back to their clubs for treatment to a variety of ailments, and there was also time out for Vickery, Julian White, Steve Thompson and Louis Deacon.
"It's not all doom and gloom," Ashton said. "We have quality players who have great experience of the world game, and if we ever get those guys together we'll have a pretty serious squad. Leadership runs through the team. The captain is a figurehead but all the players take responsibility, some more than others. We have people coming back from injury, and that raises confidence. We're playing catch- up, and what they will end up doing I don't know at the moment. They're capable of playing any style demanded of the day but we're not at that stage yet. We'll see how it evolves. This is a joint venture. This is not the Brian Ashton show."
But it is. He emphasised that team selection would be his, and if he gets that wrong, as Andy Robinson did on occasions, he will carry the can. "I know what this job is and what is expected of me. I hope the slump has bottomed out, because if it hasn't there'll be a lot of pain coming my way. I'm not looking at this from the point of job security, and the thought of public scrutiny doesn't concern me.
"I have strong opinions on how we can improve our performance, and while I'm not looking beyond the next match against Scotland it's certainly my goal to mount a very strong defence of the World Cup. It would be fantastic to be the first country to retain it. There's a long way to go before anything like that happens."
Within hours of Robinson's enforced resignation Ashton was approached by Rob Andrew, who said: "There's no time limit on Brian's appointment." This is just as well. "He's the most experienced coach in England, one of the most experienced in the world," Andrew added. "He has encountered pretty much everything there is to encounter, good and bad, amateur and professional." The life of Brian begins again at 60.
Life & Times: From early Bath to England guru
Name William Brian Ashton.
Born 3 September 1946, Leigh, Lancashire.
Playing Days Tyldesley, Fylde, Orrell, Montferrand, Roma, Milan. Named on bench for England v Scotland 1975, then toured Australia but did not play a Test.
Club Coach Bath backs coach '89-94, head coach from '94-96: Courage League '91, '92, '93, '94, '96; Pilkington Cup '90, '92, '94, '95, '96; returned January-May '06: Heineken Cup semi-final '06.
International Coach England assistant coach on tour to New Zealand '85; Ireland coach '97-98; England assistant coach '98-02: Six Nations champions '00, '01; RFU National Academy manager '02-06; returned as attack coach '06; head coach December '06-current.Reuse content