Irish give Ashton six-year deal

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Rugby Union

The Irish used to react to calamitous rugby setbacks by describing the situation as "critical, but not serious". England's six-try romp in Dublin a fortnight ago seems to have concentrated a few minds wonderfully, however, and Brian Ashton, the former Bath coach who has been working with the national team in an advisory capacity since January, was yesterday awarded a six-year contract.

Ashton is now Ireland's national coach and the deal takes him through to the 2003 World Cup - an unprecedented term, not only for Ireland but for any major Test-playing country. Ironically, it is still less than two months since he walked out on Bath expecting to sign on at his local social security office.

It now seems likely that he will take charge of selection with Pat Whelan, the Irish team manager, and an as-yet unnamed third committee member. Ashton, a 49-year-old former scrum-half who toured with England in Australia in 1975, will probably continue to live in Somerset.

England, meanwhile, received the fitness news they had been hoping for all week when Richard Hill, the Saracens open-side flanker, declared himself fit to face France at Twickenham tomorrow. Leicester's Neil Back trained with the squad on Wednesday as cover for Hill, whose sprained ankle had given cause for concern, but intensive treatment allowed the 23-year-old first choice to pass muster in a vigorous session yesterday.

Wales, who do not have a Five Nations match this weekend, are not enjoying any such luck on the injury front. Arwel Thomas, their precocious outside- half, had a knee put in plaster yesterday after picking up an injury during Swansea's Swalec Cup victory over Pontypridd at the weekend.

Although Welsh sources expect him to be fit in time to face England in Cardiff on 15 March, there was more concern about Thomas' club colleague, Christian Loader. The loose-head prop has undergone knee surgery and is rated extremely doubtful for the championship finale.