Brian Ashton, the England head coach, has no quibble with the decision of Stuart Dickinson, the Australian "television referee", to disallow Mark Cueto's try early in the second half of the World Cup final at Stade de France – a try that might have spared the holders the pain of a nine-point defeat by South Africa and the surrender of their title. "I accept it, full stop," he said yesterday. "Nothing can be done about it anyway."
Ashton will also accept a new contract from the Rugby Football Union, assuming it offers him one. Rob Andrew, who has hiring and firing powers as elite rugby director at Twickenham, has not been terribly forthcoming. "We've been discussing the situation throughout the tournament, but those discussions are private and I don't think this is the place to go into the detail of where we go next," he said, 17 bleary-eyed hours after the curtain fell on England's reign . But the former outside-half, who discovered as a player in 1991 what it is lose on such an occasion, did indicate that Ashton could expect to lead the side into the 2008 Six Nations, which begins in February.
"When we appointed Brian nine months out from a World Cup, with England in complete disarray, it was a hospital pass," he said. "We all said it at the time, and it was. With his coaching team, he worked incredibly hard through a Six Nations Championship and a tour of South Africa that was a fairly strange affair" – Ashton travelled with an understrength squad that promptly fell prey to illness – "before working even harder on this campaign. They all deserve the highest praise.
"Brian has made his position clear to me, but we've just completed a phenomenally demanding tournament. We need to sit back and reflect, then move forward in the right and proper way."
Pressed on his own views, Ashton came up with one of his little gems. "I'll have just turned 65 when the next tournament starts in New Zealand, and that's generally considered to be a pretty good retirement age," he said. Was that a "Yes, I want to carry on", then? "I answer questions in my own way," he replied.
It is well known that Ashton, whose current contract expires on 31 December, would relish a proper run at the job. Rather like Jake White, the victorious Springbok coach who worked with many of the cup-winning squad at age-group levels and built a strong bond of trust, he is in an ideal position to bring on the generation he first identified as potential world-class players during a productive spell at the national academy. Mathew Tait, Toby Flood, Tom Rees – these are obvious candidates for the trip to New Zealand. Ashton already understands the things that make them tick.
Phil Vickery, who started this tournament by earning himself a richly deserved two-match suspension but returned to captain the side with considerable distinction, described the coach's influence as "huge", adding: "He certainly made me feel happy to wear the England shirt."
Outstanding during the first half of the final but forced to give best to a neck injury at the interval, Vickery was struggling to move that great bull's head of his yesterday. He was sore in body and sick in spirit, having gone within 80 minutes of a second winner's medal, only to finish a handful of points short.
Would he carry on? "I love what I do, unfortunately," he said with a grimace. "I don't want to say anything now, in this emotional moment, that I might regret saying, so let's wait and see what the future holds. All I know now is that losing the game was like a stab in the heart. It bloody hurt, and will continue to hurt. No one remembers you for being a World Cup finalist. I wanted to win, to be remembered as a double winner. It didn't happen, but I'm proud of the way we fought for victory."
Jason Robinson, his arm in a sling to protect his dislocated shoulder, also talked of bitter disappointment, eased slightly by the unexpected surge of form that allowed England to defend their title to the death. "I've achieved far more than I thought possible when I switched from rugby league to union," he said, "but I didn't want to go out like that, injured and on the losing side."
How did the injury occur? "They kicked into the box, Paul Sackey gathered the ball, I went in to support him and was smashed by a few Springboks," he said. "I immediately thought: 'The shoulder has gone, that's me done.' As I was being treated, I saw the scrum forming and a few South African eyes lighting up at the thought of the game going on with me injured. Either the doctor would have to do some tackling, or I'd have to stand in the line and pretend I was OK. Fortunately, the referee saw I was in trouble and allowed us to make a substitution."
If it was a chaotic end to a magnificent career, it at least gave the record crowd at the Stade de France a glimpse of the future. Tait, who moved from outside-centre to full-back on Robinson's departure, performed superbly.
"If I was Rob Andrew," said Eddie Jones, the beaten Wallaby coach four years ago who linked up with the Boks shortly before this tournament, "I'd drive straight to Newcastle and ask them to play Tait at full-back for the next four years. He is a player of massive potential."
A funny thing, potential. No one gave England a prayer of making the last weekend of the competition, but when the big questions were asked, they found enough answers to stay in town longer than Australia or New Zealand – or indeed the French, many of whom actually live in Paris. It ended in sadness, but at least they were here to experience it.Reuse content