Rugby Union: Irish turn to Gatland after Ashton resigns

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BRIAN ASHTON has resigned as coach of Ireland, a couple of weeks into an increasingly fragmented and fractious Five Nations' Championship.

Less than 12 months after signing a six-year contract, the 50-year-old Lancastrian has had enough of what looks like an unfair struggle in the Fair City.

"I have decided to resign, with regret, for personal reasons," Ashton said. Under his charge, Ireland have won only one Five Nations match, beating Wales in Cardiff last season, but the Englishman had to stomach a record 46-6 defeat to England in Dublin. The Irish lost to New Zealand and Italy and, two weeks ago, opened the Championship with a defeat by Scotland at Lansdowne Road. It has left the Irish with the prospect of the wooden spoon and they already have a drawer full of them.

Ireland moved quickly to plug the gap by appointing the New Zealander Warren Gatland to succeed Ashton.

Since losing to Scotland, Ashton has been suffering from shingles and was unable to supervise the national squad last week.

The appointment of Ashton, especially on a long-term contract, appeared to be something of a coup for the Irish. In 1989 the schoolteacher teamed up with Jack Rowell at Bath and together they turned the club into the most successful in England. League and Cup doubles were their speciality.

When Rowell took over the England job in 1994, Ashton was promoted and he and Bath resumed normal service, maintaining a phenomenal run of success. Despite the fact that he is hugely rated in the game, England, after parting company with Rowell, made no move for Ashton.

Since rugby went professional in 1995, Ireland, Wales and Scotland have struggled to keep in touch with England and France. One of the reasons is that many of the leading Celts have been recruited to England's Premiership in which the standards and competition, as well as salaries, are higher.

Ashton had bases in Ireland and the West Country and felt the need to commute back and forth across the Irish Sea. It is understood he became disillusioned with the task and he did not exactly get on with Pat Whelan, the team manager, like a house on fire. "I'm English, Pat's Irish. I'm a professional, he's an amateur," Ashton remarked recently. He was seeking more autonomy from the Irish Rugby Football Union, who make the manager, rather than the coach, ultimately accountable for the performances of the team. Ashton wanted the authority to comment on team selection and more say in the awarding of players' contracts.

It is understood that although his contract required him to serve six months' notice, the IRFU waived it. Niall Brophy, the IRFU president, said: "The Union regrets Brian Ashton's resignation. I thank him for his contribution to Irish rugby and wish him well."

For rugby coach, read football manager; the job is becoming increasingly precarious. Scotland have already dispensed with Richie Dixon and David Johnston and last week Leicester sacked Bob Dwyer and London Irish removed Willie Anderson.

The new coach, Gatland, was an understudy of the All Blacks hooker Sean Fitzpatrick, and brought the best out of Connacht.

"I'm well familiar with the Irish rugby scene having lived and played here on and off since I first came to Ireland with the 1989 All Blacks, and I'm looking forward to the challenge," he said.

He does not have far to look for his first, and biggest, challenge. Ireland face an exceptional French team in Paris on Saturday week and are not given a prayer.