Rugby Union: Ashton perfects his green philosophy

David Llewellyn talks to the leader all Ireland is looking to for inspiration
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HE MAY have signed an unprecedented six-year contract on 1 April last year - putting him in charge of Ireland's national rugby side until the year 2003 - but Brian Ashton is no fool.

No one who had a hand in helping Bath to accumulate their obscene number of titles and cups as Ashton did during his near eight-year stint with the West Country club, first as assistant to Jack Rowell then as coach in his own right, could be labelled that. "But April Fools' Day, what a date to sign a contract," admitted Ashton.

When he originally accepted the post of coaching adviser to Ireland in January last year, the label on everyone's lips was, "The second Jack Charlton." And if he is no fool, Ashton is certainly not Charlton either.

However, the burden of expectation was huge. Irish rugby followers expected miracles, similar to those of that other Englishman when he was put in charge of the Republic of Ireland soccer team. But the situations are as different as the shape of the ball used by each sport.

"The comparison between me and Jack Charlton was made," said Ashton, "but it disappeared fairly smartly, probably through a combination of results and physical appearance. I mean, physically we are a giraffe and a dwarf." But Ashton acknowledged that he has to bear a burden of expectation because of all that success at Bath. "I think there are expectations of every national coach anyway," conceded Ashton, 51. "I suspect a lot of people were expecting an overnight turnaround in the fortunes of Irish rugby, that they could go out on the field and start winning."

Of course, the reality was harsher. Ashton's first match in his advisory role was a defeat, albeit after a typically passionate display for an hour, at home to France; and the country's heaviest championship defeat at home to England sandwiched a slender victory over Wales in Cardiff, their only win in last year's Five Nations. Ashton then had to wait until November before the side recorded their second triumph of 1997, a 33-11 defeat of Canada. But the year ended as it had begun, with a shattering defeat, against Italy.

It is enough to make a coach walk out of the job, but Ashton is made of sterner stuff. "I'm finding it very hard work," he admitted. "But last August I sat down with all the players and outlined to them my approach to the game and then where I thought we could take Irish rugby forward. Eventually we came up with a common philosophy."

It was the first of the changes introduced by Ashton. "Obviously, there were going to be changes in personnel," he said, "but I have also tried to switch the focus from the sort of rugby they were trying to play, to a more competitive one, one better suited to the modern era."

As one expects of a coach of Ashton's quality, the theory was then applied, and worked, in practice. But they missed the point and the points in matches. "I suppose what I am trying to do is to open up the mind of the players and get them to appreciate what is possible in a game," Ashton said.

"We can get it right on the training pitch, but we have not been able to translate it with any consistency to a competitive game. That is the next barrier to overcome. In some ways it might be the final barrier."

It is not a case of if it happens, but rather when. With their opening Five Nations match at home to Scotland just a week away, Ashton is optimistic. "They are saying it's a two-horse race with the championship decider in Paris on the first Saturday," he remarked. "Well, we are going to compete. If everything goes right then I believe we can win against Scotland."

His opinion is based on fact rather than sentiment. Against the Italians, Ireland proved they could create chances. All they need at Lansdowne Road is the essential ingredient - finishing. And if Ireland do turn a supposed two-horse race into something more meaningful, the first day of April may see the canonisation of a new sporting saint.