Ashton sets out to push back the boundaries

England assistant coach refuses to compromise on attacking ideas despite growing emphasis on defence
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A fortnight ago, Brian Ashton resurfaced at his old workplace on the banks of the River Avon to watch a Bath back division containing four England internationals – Perry, Balshaw, Catt and Voyce – labour for more than an hour before subduing a Swansea side who had looked more interested in going straight from team bus to bar without bothering with the rugby bit in between. Forward-thinking tacticians of Ashton's stamp do not generally waste time mooching around the corridors of their own memories, but it would have been surprising indeed had this particular spectator not recalled a more celebrated Bath-Swansea encounter circa 1996.

The West Countrymen put 80 points on their visitors that night – a chap by the name of Jason Robinson, enjoying his first taste of union after travelling south on a six-month sabbatical from rugby league, was mesmeric – and Ashton later held court in one of the Recreation Ground's new hospitality boxes. "What you saw out there was only the beginning," he said, glowing with the satisfaction of a theoretician who had been proved right. "Rugby is a game of the imagination, and if you are fit and skilful and have the confidence to keep the ball in your hands, there are very few boundaries." Within four months, Ashton had left Bath in a fog of frustration.

Many things have happened in the intervening five years: Ashton became Ireland's first fully professional national coach, quit Dublin in short order after getting himself tangled up in the politics of the place, took on a development job in Clive Woodward's radical new regime at Twickenham and was quickly promoted to the inner circle of the red rose hierarchy, which is where he now operates as assistant coach. He has learned a fair bit, about himself and others, during the journey, but his vision has not altered one iota. Only the great Pierre Villepreux could conceivably challenge the Lancastrian's status as the leading attacking strategist in European rugby.

Ashton, who toured Australia as England's second-string scrum-half more than a quarter of a century ago but never won a cap, is renowned for his ability to "think outside the box", as the current jargon has it – to think the unthinkable. During his Bath days, he was fond of challenging received wisdoms about how long the ball could be kept in play over the course of an 80-minute game. Having discovered that the average time was less than 30 minutes, he raised the bar by persuading his players to kick only as a last resort. "The plan was to increase the in-play time to 40 minutes," he recalled this week. "We didn't get there, but we tried."

He has even less patience with rugby's shibboleths now than he had then. "It would be wrong to say that rugby is a game of infinite possibility, because the game is played in a contained area," he said following the announcement of a typically adventurous England side – Balshaw, not Perry; Robinson, not Cohen – for this afternoon's Grand Slam match at Lansdowne Road.

"But we're a million miles away from exhausting the possibilities that do exist. I'm sick to death of all this talk of defence dominating attack at professional level. We are now in the ridiculous situation of seeing large numbers of coaches giving up on attack completely, and spending all their time working out how to stop the other team. Defences dominate only if your attacking ideas are so limited that you cannot stretch the opposition and break them down."

As a tactician, the only thing Ashton fears is fear itself. "It seems to me that the more professional the game becomes, the less creativity we see," he continued. "Take the southern hemisphere Tri-Nations series during the summer as an example. There was a more conservative feel to that tournament than I'd detected for some time, and that disappointed me. There seems to be a world-wide reluctance to try new things, to break down the barriers, and that leads me to question the fundamentals of coaching.

"How do you define coaching? What is a coach there to do? To win rugby matches, full stop? I don't think so. To my mind, a coach is there to develop talent, to help players achieve their potential, to guide and encourage and inspire. Last year, there was talk of introducing an award for the International Coach of the Year. What a horrifying notion! It could only be judged on results, and there is quite enough emphasis on results as it is. If coaching is only about the scoreboard at the end of a game, it is hardly surprising that so many coaches are saying 'We won't do this' and 'We won't do that' because of the risks involved. In the end, the whole thing will stagnate."

If it were entirely down to Ashton, England would attempt to win this afternoon's Six Nations international at Lansdowne Road – and, by extension, their sixth post-war Grand Slam – in the first quarter. "You hear so much about weathering the Irish storm, about soaking up the early pressure before bringing the game under control," he said with a shake of the head. "I'd like to see us say 'Bugger the Irish storm', take a grip up front immediately and explore a few ideas. The laws as they stand do not restrict a side that wants to play rugby, and there is some serious rugby-playing talent in this England squad."

Ashton would love nothing better than to land a Grand Slam here, where he spent a turbulent few months as Ireland's philosopher king. He has never spoken publicly about the events leading to his departure: "Some pretty horrible things happened," he said, by way of closing the subject. He does, however, consider the Irish to be on the right track in terms of structure and organisation.

"Central contracting of the players has made a difference, certainly," he acknowledged. "When I was coaching here, I spent most of my time watching matches in the English Premiership, because that was where virtually everyone I was interested in was playing his rugby. Look at the Irish side now, and you see the opposite: with the exception of Keith Wood and Kevin Maggs, the starting XV are Ireland-based. But then, the national union has now developed a proper professional set-up, as opposed to the hybrid 'shamateur' system I had to work within.

"Theoretically, there was a sense of ambition in Irish rugby when I was here, but there was very little practical application of that ambition. It was one of the frustrations of my time in Dublin. But there wasn't too much ambition in England either. If you'd said five years ago that the England team would be operating at this level of organisation, I wouldn't have believed you for a second. Clive Woodward has done a remarkable job in terms of modernisation. An absolutely superb job, actually."

A job that should bear fruit this afternoon, if the bookmakers are to be trusted. But what if the fruit goes pear-shaped, and the Irish deliver what might be termed a Celtic triple-whammy, in light of England's previous Grand Slam traumas at the hands of Wales and Scotland? Would the red rose army then withdraw into itself and return to a more attritional style. "I hope not," Ashton replied. "I would want us to keep the faith and continue playing some rugby. When I coached at school level, there were times when I looked at the other lot and thought: 'Christ, we've no chance here.' But you have to keep playing anyway, because there is no point in doing anything else. Don't be a boxer if you're going to throw in the towel every time you get hit. Don't play rugby if you don't want to extend yourself."