If Brian Ashton had any battles to win in the aftermath of England's unexpectedly resolute defence of their world title in France and his critics, small in number but loud of voice, did everything in their power to ensure there would be no peace he appears to have won them, hands down. The coach, reappointed by the Rugby Football Union on Wednesday, will have the decisive say on selection, play a leading role in identifying a manager for the national team and generally shape the top end of the red-rose operation in his own image.
This much became clear yesterday when, together with the RFU's director of elite rugby, Rob Andrew, the 61-year-old Lancastrian shed some light on plans for the next 12 months of international business, which begins with a Six Nations match against Wales at Twickenham in early February. Asked whether he could envisage a situation where he might coach an England team he was not picking, Ashton shook his head. "As long as I'm in this job," he replied, "I'll be in charge of selection."
Two of the most revered England forwards of recent times, Martin Johnson and Dean Richards, have been widely mentioned as managerial material, but it now appears the job will be low-grade rather than high-powered. Johnson had ruled himself out anyway, and it is difficult to imagine Richards, currently on a long-term contract at Harlequins, as a mere functionary. Someone like the former England captain Phil de Glanville, who worked successfully with Ashton at Bath in the 1990s but is not heavily involved in rugby now, might tick more of the relevant boxes.
"There are a number of time-consuming aspects to running the England team, and I would ideally like someone alongside me to ease the load," Ashton said. "I have names in mind and if possible it would be good to put a person in place before the end of the Six Nations. Would his role be more than purely administrative? Yes. However, I do not see that person having any formal say on selection matters."
By sticking with Ashton's two principal World Cup lieutenants, the forwards specialist John Wells and the defence strategist Mike Ford, the RFU spurned an obvious opportunity to bring Shaun Edwards, of Wasps, into the elite coaching team. Instead, they have offered him a role as part-time coach of the second-string Saxons a hastily concocted alternative designed to dissuade him from joining his great friend Warren Gatland in Wales. It remains to be seen whether a twilit Saxons job will satisfy the former rugby league maestro's craving for the limelight.
Ashton is now pretty much where he wants to be: in command of the national team, with a posse of outstanding young players. He will not be rushed into giving them the run of Twickenham, though. "There's no point throwing them in the deep end at once and telling them to sink or swim, because they would sink without trace," he said. "The key word here is potential. We have a lot of very exciting individuals playing regularly in the Premiership, but there's a big difference between the Premiership or the Saxons, come to that and international rugby. There are some highly experienced players who did a job at the World Cup and who want to continue playing for England. Those people have to come under consideration.
"I don't subscribe to the theory of the four-year World Cup cycle. We're now on a Six Nations-summer tour cycle. If there is going to be a launching-pad moment for the next World Cup in 2011, it won't be until 2009."
* The Ospreys have named New Zealander Andrew Hore as their first elite performance director.Reuse content