Ashton given responsibility without power

Ireland have signed an English coach, Brian Ashton (left), for a Five Nations campaign which begins tomorrow at home to France. David Hughes looks at the task facing him
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Responding to the clarion calls from a rugby nation at arguably its lowest ebb, the English knight in shining armour rides in to the rescue. Shades of Jack Charlton and all that, whom Brian Ashton has revealed he would like to counsel for insights into the Irish psyche. This, though, could be trickier.

There is a feeling among Irish rugby folk that Ashton may not quite realise what he is letting himself in for. Or maybe he does? Hence, perhaps, his ambiguous title of coaching advisor and a short-term contract until the conclusion of the Five Nations.

So then, what exactly is the state of the damsel in distress? On Monday, Ashton assumed control of an under-achieving, ever-changing Irish team low on morale and direction five days before their championship opener against France, whom Ireland have not beaten since 1983.

What is more, like his predecessors, he assumes responsibility without full power, being one of five selectors alongside a "hands on" manager in an outmoded, unwieldy management system.

All in all, Ashton might be better served talking to one of his predecessors as opposed to Charlton. One of them, Ciaran Fitzgerald, was clearly speaking from bitter experience when commenting on the manner in which the IRFU made Murray Kidd sole scapegoat for this season's home defeats to Western Samoa, Australia and Italy last week.

"I think it was handled very poorly by the IRFU and I also felt that he [Kidd] came out the wrong end of it in that he was part of a committee. There was a manager there who ran the team, there was a selection committee who selected the team. Sure, he was responsible for tactics and the preparation of the side but to single out one guy and say you're gone and you're responsible for everything, and everybody else is exonerated, is wrong. It just doesn't stack up."

It is this responsibility without power which has made Australians Bob Dwyer and John Connolly shy away from IRFU overtures, Dwyer describing the system as "too fragmented". Even Irish coaches such as Willie Anderson and John O'Driscoll probably would not touch the job in its existing parameters with a proverbial 10-foot pole.

"It's perfectly reasonable for them to give the manager overall responsibility and I have no problem with that. But I couldn't be the coach I would want to be under those circumstances," O'Driscoll says.

Significantly, the balance shifted from the coach to the manager after the pre-1991 World Cup dispute between players and the Union. After the World Cup, Noel Murphy inherited Ken Reid's position as manager and assumed more responsibility and power - which Pat Whelan, the manager and chairman of selectors, retained.

Other Irish coaches might not have been so reluctant, had they been asked. But, as was the case when Kidd was appointed 15 months ago and last week, they weren't. As one of this alienated rump, a former provincial coach, puts it: "What kind of message does this send out to the likes of Davy Haslett [the former Irish schools and under-21 coach now coaching the A side] and other guys supposedly coming through the system?"

Meantime, as well as brazenly letting Kidd be the fall guy, the remaining Irish selectors have axed a third of the team beaten by Italy. While still inching closer to Ireland's best XV, the feeling persists that they are not quite there yet, though in time- honoured tradition they probably will be by the third or fourth game.

Whelan admits Anthony Foley is unlucky to be omitted in a back-row revamped to accommodate Dennis McBride, whose height (or lack of it) is likely to be exposed by a French line-out which traditionally utilises the tail better than anybody. Meantime, Foley has been switched to No 6 on the A side, which should do wonders for his state of mind.

By recalling the defensively solid Niall Hogan and Eric Elwood at half- back, it is clear that the Irish intend to batten down the hatches. This, despite Whelan's tetchy assertion prior to the Italian game that Elwood had to make up some ground from his standing as a remote third choice - "an awful statement to make," according to Fitzgerald.

Whelan and Co might have gone further too. While Jonathan Bell has been retained more on potential than form, and Maurice Field has been recalled yet again, by common consent the New Zealander Kurt McQuilkan is the best inside centre around and is a team-mate of Elwood's at Lansdowne. Aside from being a proven tackler, McQuilkan is, as Fitzgerald says, "one guy who will penetrate and you can work a back row off." Given Ireland have not created one opening in three games, that would clearly assist Ashton's stated back-to-basics opening gambit.

"Initially, what I have to do is simplify the Irish game," the new man said on Monday. "I'm a great believer in the game not being complicated. It's easier for the players to understand and it's easier for the players to put into operation. I also feel the need for the side to get back the Irish passion."

Given the time limitations, he does not have much option. "Bring a guy in a week before the Five Nations' kick off, what can he do?" Fitzgerald asks rhetorically. "I would say nil." Invariably though, Ireland will improve and they are capable of giving a traditional backs-to-the-wall performance against the mighty French tomorrow. They probably would have anyway.

Acknowledging their relatively timid rucking against Italy, and allied to the changes at half-back, something of the old Lansdowne Road fire and brimstone can be anticipated in what is likely to be a rough game.

Regardless of the outcome, Ashton will enjoy the customary honeymoon period, but, as Fitzgerald says: "By the time he gets to know the team, it's going to be the end of the season."

"So I'm just hoping that maybe they're just using this as a stepping stone to a final package. Maybe he [Ashton] wants control of the final selection, which I think would be a good move on his part."