Rugby Union: Ashton takes Irish coaching post

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The Independent Online
The mere thought of being asked to help England chart a course through the choppy waters of the Five Nations' Championship is clearly enough to make strong men go weak at the knees. Less than 24 hours after Jack Rowell, the national coach, threatened Brian Ashton, an old comrade from his days at Bath, with a place in his Twickenham think tank, Ashton yesterday accepted a post as Ireland's coaching adviser.

A year ago, the idea that it might be easier to squeeze the best out of Ireland rather than their big-island neighbours would have been laughable, but England's performance against Argentina last month, and particularly that of their back division, for whom Ashton would have taken considerable responsibility had Rowell managed to beat the Irish to his services, changed all that.

Ashton severed his seven-year association with Bath on Monday after a prolonged dispute with the club's new management board; poorly paid in comparison to even the lesser lights on the playing staff, he was even more frustrated by his lack of influence on a wide range of rugby issues. That is not a problem he is likely to face with the Irish who badly need an inventive tactical thinker to restore credibility and confidence after their embarrassing 37-29 home defeat against Italy last week.

The resignation of the New Zealander, Murray Kidd, left the way clear for Ashton's appointment. Although he has agreed only a short-term deal to cover the forthcoming championship, it is perfectly possible that the 49-year- old schoolmaster from Lancashire will be asked to lay the foundations for Ireland's World Cup campaign in two years' time.

"I'm delighted that this has come about," he said yesterday. "For a start, it was important to find myself a job. I have family responsibilities to think about and having resigned my post at Bath, I was as worried about the future as any other unemployed person. People kept telling me it wouldn't be long before something turned up and they have been proved right, but it was still of deep concern to me.

"This is a big task - an opening international against the French in eight days' time is not the easiest of starts - but I am absolutely enthralled at the prospect. As I understand it I'll be involved in selection, although I must admit that I'll be fairly passive in that role for a little while because I know so little about the players concerned. I haven't kept in close touch with Irish rugby in the past and while I've run the rule over some of their players in a club context, it has always been to work out ways of beating them rather than helping them fulfil their potential.

"I think the Irish could do with some sorting out behind the scrum, but there is no shortage of talent. They have been very useful indeed at Under- 21 and Under-19 level of late and I see it as part of my job to make sure those players develop into strong international performers."

The partnership between Ashton and Mike Brewer, the former All Black flanker who was working alongside Kidd, should give the Irish their soundest tactical base in a generation. "I had a long conversation with Mike earlier this week and I must say that I have seldom struck such a chord with anyone," Ashton said.

Ireland's match against England in Dublin on 15 February now takes on a whole new perspective. Ashton's detailed knowledge of a back division likely to be dominated by Bath players makes Rowell's job all the more difficult. "I'm a patriotic Lancastrian and Englishman, so it will be odd to coach a team with the aim of beating my own country," he said. "But for the period of the Five Nations, I am as green as any Irishman in rugby matters."

As Jon Sleightholme, the England wing whose career blossomed under Ashton's tutelage at Bath, admitted yesterday: "I've always said that Bath's loss would be someone else's gain.''

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