Ashton displays good cheer and fierce ambition

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The Independent Online

Those who believe Brian Ashton will need all the help he can get in resurrecting England's rugby fortunes after three years of free-fall, and they are in a very substantial majority, must have been just a little concerned at the knockabout nature of his first public appearance as head coach of the world champions.

Asked whether he would call in specialist aid ahead of a difficult Six Nations tournament lurking just around the corner, Ashton replied: "As I've only been in the job since 11.30 this morning, I really haven't thought about it." To which Rob Andrew, the man responsible for his appointment, said: "So what have you been doing?"

Eerily good-natured stuff, given the parlous state in which England find themselves nine months shy of their defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy. But beneath the cheery bonhomie, there were flashes of the real Ashton: the uncompromising streak, the fierce ambition, the profound belief that England can rediscover how to win rugby matches on the biggest stages, and win them well. "If I didn't think I could handle what people call pressure," he said, "I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you now. I am looking forward to 2007."

But why? England have lost eight of their last nine matches, many of their most influential players - Charlie Hodgson, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Stevens, Steve Borthwick - are injured, and the domestic structure underpinning the England Test side remains one of the most molten issues in the whole of sporting politics. Was Ashton seriously suggesting he would make more sense of the club-country chaos than Sir Clive Woodward, who resigned because of it, or Andy Robinson, who was ritually sacrificed on the self-same altar?

"Maybe I look at it in a different way to Clive or Andy," said the 60-year-old Lancastrian, who made his name coaching the great Bath side between 1989 and 1996 and reached a high point with England in 2001, when they ripped through a Six Nations truncated by foot-and-mouth disease, scoring seven tries a game.

"I believe I can make an impact in terms of taking the England team forward, and that begins with creating the kind of atmosphere that will allow the players to start enjoying their rugby. I've held very firm views on this throughout my career, right from the amateur days.

"I know what this job is, what is expected of me - it's the most important coaching role in English rugby. I hope the slump in fortunes has bottomed out, because if it hasn't, there'll be a lot of pain coming my way. But I'm not looking at this from a job-security point of view, and the thought of public scrutiny does not concern me. I have strong opinions on how can we can improve our performance at international level and while I'm not looking beyond the next match, against Scotland in February, it is certainly my goal to mount a very strong defence of the World Cup. It would be fantastic to be the first side to retain it. There's a long way to go before anything like that happens, but you don't write off any of the top rugby nations in a tournament situation."

Andrew, the elite director of rugby, will continue to sit on selection, alongside Ashton and his two principal lieutenants, the forwards coach John Wells and the defence strategist Mike Ford. There will be no further full-time appointments for the foreseeable future, although the search for a manager continues behind the scenes. Andrew would not discuss that particular subject yesterday, but it remains on the Twickenham agenda. Dean Richards, the director of rugby across the road at Harlequins, is favourite for the role.

Ashton was approached by Andrew within hours of Robinson's enforced resignation three weeks ago. "There is no time limit on Brian's appointment - I'm just delighted he has agreed to take on the job," the elite rugby director said. "While the selection panel will still exist, it is not a matter of voting rights. It's more of an advisory body. The head coach will pick the team, and the head coach is Brian. He is the most experienced coach in England, one of the most experienced in the world game. He has encountered pretty much everything there is to encounter, good and bad, amateur and professional. The thing now is to look ahead. I've been in this job three months and I'm already sick of looking back to 2003 and the World Cup victory. We have to put that aside and move on, because if we don't, we'll stay stuck in this mess."

There are three full rounds of Guinness Premiership matches between now and New Year's Day, and both Ashton and Andrew will be casting an eye over a range of fixtures before announcing a revamped elite player squad on 2 January. Both men believe they have sufficient cachet with the Premiership hierarchy to reach workable agreements on player access ahead of the World Cup - indeed, Ashton is prepared to give ground to the clubs, especially on the issue of fitness. "There are outstanding conditioning specialists working at club level and it's not my business to dictate to people on this issue," he said.

He also acknowledged that rugby politics leave him cold. "I prefer wearing a tracksuit to a collar and tie," he admitted, before adding: "I've learned a lot down the years. I learned a good deal from my time as head coach of Ireland in the mid-1990s - I won't go into the problems I encountered there because we all want to get home tonight, but they've been well chronicled - and I learned a great amount during my spells at Bath and from the time I spent setting up the national academy. This is a greater challenge, but I've never shirked a challenge in my life. I'm honoured, privileged and excited."

It's your call, boss Four issues facing England's head coach:

* THE GAME PLAN

There is no earthly point in England handing Ashton the reins if he is not given carte blanche to drive the chariot in a direction of his own choosing. His style of rugby - fast, flexible, free-flowing - places a premium on instinctive footballers blessed with the full range of skills. He must pick the appropriate men now, and stick with them.

* THE CAPTAIN

A major priority. Martin Corry, who led the side through the latter months of Andy Robinson's tenure, turned in some wonderful performances, all of them in defeat. Ashton needs a captain untainted by failure - an up-and-at-'em sort who demands an automatic place in the starting line-up. Phil Vickery, the Wasps prop, is an obvious candidate.

* THE OUTSIDE-HALF

Oh, dear. Charlie Hodgson is unlikely to make the World Cup; Jonny Wilkinson is still in no-man's land; the new generation - Toby Flood, Ryan Lamb, Shane Geraghty - are nothing more than babes-in-arms. The form teams in the world, New Zealand and Ireland, know precisely what they are doing at No 10. Ashton has to make a big call, soon.

* THE VICTORY

England need to beat someone, and beat them by plenty. Their opening Six Nations fixtures bring Scotland and Italy to Twickenham - winnable games, irrespective of England's current travails. Ashton must gear everything towards maximising performance against both visitors as a means of building confidence for the tougher challenges ahead.

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