`Ashtongate' tarnishes Bath's aura of invincibility

Chris Hewett on the discord at England's top union club
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The Independent Online
The most successful club side in the history of the English game were today assessing the fall-out from the worst two months they have experienced in more than a decade. Bath, League and Cup champions, lost more than a brilliant rugby mind when their coach, Brian Ashton, tended his long-expected resignation yesterday: they also lost their aura of invincibility.

It remains to be seen whether Andy Robinson, the former England flanker, can plug the widening holes in the Bath dam. Few would dismiss the chances of his doing so for in terms of pride, tenacity and inner belief - and Bath's phenomenal record of 17 trophies in 13 seasons since 1983 was achieved on precisely those virtues - there is no one better equipped to take over the reins, even though his coaching background is limited.

But, to succeed, Robinson will have to address the bitterest of ironies. Having brought new standards of professionalism to an amateur game, Bath have made such a botch of embracing the professional era that only one word can describe their performance off the field. Amateur.

Andrew Brownsword, the local greetings card tycoon who pumped pounds 2.5m into the club in the summer and thus enabled Bath to hang on to the lion's share of a gifted squad, was always going to keep a close eye on his investment. Unfortunately, the management board set up to run affairs on a more business- conscious footing has created so much discontent among the playing staff that some sort of public embarrassment was inevitable.

The catalogue of flawed man management almost defies belief. Senior internationals had been rapped on the knuckles for drinking and smoking in the club house - the player who claimed that Ed Goodall, the new chief executive, was "so puritanical that he makes Oliver Cromwell look like Linda Lovelace", was only half joking. As a result of Goodall's demands for a clean-cut image, some players now leave the club almost immediately after games and relax elsewhere.

When Federico Mendez, the extravagantly salaried and even more extravagantly talented Argentinian international, flew into London on joining Bath, the club decided to send a junior player rather than a management official to meet him. Comically, the player lost his way and Mendez was left twiddling his thumbs for the best part of an eternity.

Far more seriously, the management mishandled the terms of reference enshrined in Ashton's contract and then sat back as their key tactician grew increasingly frustrated at this lack of influence on selection, player recruitment and, in the end, the tactics themselves. His relationship with John Hall, one of the great servants of Bath on the pitch and now team manager, was never particularly cosy and became more strained as the senior side stumbled from one unaccustomed set-back to another. It was not exactly a bombshell when Ashton took leave of absence to consider his future just before Christmas, for he had been unhappy for weeks. He felt unappreciated and, in many ways, he had every right to.

Yesterday, he refused to specify precise reasons for his departure. "When I left teaching last June to take up the full-time post at Bath, I never envisaged that anything like this would happen," he said. "I can't explain in detail why this has occurred, but the environment just isn't right at the moment. There were lots of problems, all sorts. But I would like to say that there were no problems whatsoever in regard to the players; the real enjoyment I've had over the past five months has been the contact with them."

There is no doubt that Ashton, who arrived at the Recreation Ground in 1989 and assisted Jack Rowell for five years before his colleague heeded the England call in 1994, will surface sooner rather than later in a more influential - and almost certainly better-paid - role. A number of possibilities have been thrown around the city's rugby rumour mill: Ireland, Cardiff and even Japan have been mentioned. But Ashton insists that he has not been approached by anyone. He will not have to wait long.

Meanwhile, Robinson must get on with the job of restoring some desire to a depressed changing-room and some sanity to the board-room. He was upbeat yesterday, saying: "We will continue striving to achieve the perfect game, knowing that we must win every remaining match if we are to retain our title. It is a challenge, but one that I am relishing."

Those were the right words. Now comes the time for action.