Ashton: from joke to genius

England's coach has been heavily criticised but had the last laugh yesterday when he masterminded a brilliant victory. By Hugh Godwin
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The Independent Online

No one ever christened rugby the beautiful game, but it can be a beautifully simple one. Get your best players on the field and take on the opposition where it hurts most. These last four years England have so often been unable to do the former, they were denied the ability to do the latter. "It was tense, Test match rugby, see-saw with all sorts of turnovers, but that's the game," the 2003 captain, Martin Johnson, said after yesterday's game.

It was a surprise the great man's successors in the white jersey got through, given the capitulation against South Africa early in the pool stage, and it will be another week before we know precisely the extent of the recovery. But the English patient is, if not quite bounding along, then walking with a spring in the step and, of course, with that little gold pot still held firmly in one hand.

Rewind to 2004 and the scene was anything but simple. Glorying in their status as world champions, England needed a wind of change but stumbled into a fog of stagnation. Sir Clive Woodward quit Twickenham complaining his best-laid plans were getting the bum's rush from the top clubs, and Andy Robinson underwent a four-hour interview to assume the head coach's role.

Either Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, was unsure of Robinson's credentials, or Robinson had so much to "wow" the union with, they did not want to stop listening.

Whatever the case, the Robinson regime was fatally undermined by retirements and injuries to, among others, Jonny Wilkinson, Richard Hill and Phil Vickery – the men who might reasonably have been expected to take up the departed Johnson's mantle.

It ended with Brian Ashton being parachuted in at the start of this year. Ashton, a champion of the free spirit when he wasn't in charge of a national team, took a good look at James Haskell, Nick Abendanon, Danny Cipriani, Toby Flood, Shane Geraghty and others before this World Cup and left them all at home (Flood came out as a replacement). Time will tell if that has served the long game well. In the short term a semi-final beckons for the 13 thirtysomethings in the squad.

There will be much lauding of yeoman qualities. The Australian backs looked many times the more talented in open play but their forwards were brutally shut down in the tight. "When we were on their line after 50 minutes we looked in their eyes and knew we had them," said the No 8, Nick Easter.

And it is right to celebrate, if only out of kinship with the dozens of thousands of good folk who travelled to Marseilles yesterday. They have suffered many defeats and some awful rugby since 2003 yet remain happy to associate with the red rose. Life through a macro lens is more complicated. When the clubs are chasing trophy upon trophy in a ridiculously congested season, do they rate England's performance as overarchingly important? Some of them demonstrate an anti-England feeling.

It is nothing orchestrated in most cases; perhaps no more than a coach who doesn't like his player coming back from international duty injured or with a head full of different tactics. Leicester, with their bulging coffers, like to inform their shareholders of where the RFU is going wrong. English players turning up alongside numerous foreigners each Premiership working day may be forgiven for getting the wrong impression: club good, country bad.

Now, after much negotiation marked by savage sledging of each side by the other, there is an eight-year deal on the table between the RFU and the clubs. It will let the players know when they are to go training with England and who will sign them off when they are injured. Whether or not the 61-year-old Ashton continues after the World Cup, thought must go into whether it is better to nurture future England coaches in the hothouse of the clubs, or the cooler environment running RFU age group and academy teams.

Jim Mallinder, who had looked after the Under-21s and Saxons, is back in the club game at Northampton. There may be room alongside the RFU's elite rugby director Rob Andrew for a heavy-hitting team manager; a Johnson or a Dean Richards.

Maybe the bad days really are at an end. One thing's for sure. No amount of small print will ever cater for a player's heart and soul. For now, good old England have prevailed again. By keeping it simple.