Ashton the magician returns from exile to cast his spell over unwary Wallabies

The architect of England's finest attacking play of the modern era explains the way forward to Chris Hewett in Sydney

Brian Ashton is an open-minded sort, but there are certain things he would rather not hear in public - or in private, for that matter. He is not, for instance, keen on people using the expression "high-risk rugby" in his connection. "I'm not interested in risks," he says, sharply. "I'm interested in winning." Then there is the word "drill", which he considers particularly offensive. Indeed, when someone talks of a drill within earshot of the newly re-appointed England attack coach, his face darkens like that of a country parson's confronted by a rendition of "Barnacle Bill the Sailor" at evensong.

"Bloody drills, indeed," he muttered in his broad Lancastrian accent as he chewed the fat over the world champions' chances of beating the Wallabies at the Telstra Stadium tomorrow. "I don't wish to be associated with drills. Do you know what the word conjures up for me? Soldiers marching around a barracks in an advanced state of misery, bored out of their skulls. I think of square-bashing, of a group of professional people having all their ideas, their independence of mind, hammered out of them. I don't operate like that. The day I run a session where everyone marches about under the direction of one voice - my voice - will be the day I give up. Drills? The word is not in my vocabulary."

So that's clear, then. Clarity is a major with Ashton: clarity and simplicity. These qualities were evident when England last captured the imagination with a series of high-calibre attacking performances against serious opposition, in a 2001 Six Nations Championship that fell victim to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease which prevented them travelling to Ireland. Under Ashton's guidance, they averaged very nearly 54 points and seven tries against the other tournament contenders, revelling in the brilliance of Iain Balshaw and Mike Catt, Will Greenwood and Austin Healey, Ben Cohen and some bloke called Wilkinson. Yes, even Jonny-boy seemed to play with a twinkle in his eye, rather than with a hair shirt on his back.

The question is whether he can begin working the oracle a second time in his 60th year. Before the end of the 2002 Six Nations he was out of the England Test loop, personal issues dovetailing with the then unknighted Clive Woodward's fresh desire to flesh out his managerial role with some hands-on tracksuit work. Ashton was running the new national academy when the red rose army secured the World Cup in this very city a little over 30 months ago, but when standards began to slip in 2004, not least in Brisbane, where the Wallabies wreaked revengeful havoc by putting 50 points past Woodward's tourists, senior players began pressing for his reinstatement. "We have the best coach in Europe training the Under-12s," said Lawrence Dallaglio at the time. "Explain that one to me."

It would take another couple of years and an outbreak of bloodletting unprecedented in the history of the Rugby Football Union to get him back, and much to Twickenham's embarrassment the negotiations with Bath, the club with which he is most closely associated and which he rejoined midway through the season just ended, were somewhat less than straightforward. The West Countrymen had lost coaches to England before - Jack Rowell, Andy Robinson, Woodward himself - and dug in their heels over compensation. It was not difficult to see their point, given the profound impact Ashton had made on Recreation Ground life in the course of five bewilderingly breakneck months.

"Unfortunate timing," he agreed, a trifle awkwardly. "It was unfortunate from everyone's perspective: Bath's, the RFU's, mine. No one could have predicted the turn of events between the start of the Six Nations Championship in February, when England beat Wales very convincingly, and the end of it in March, by which time they had lost three straight games and finished fourth. The truth is this: after leaving the England team in 2002, I hoped and prayed that I would be given an opportunity to resume coaching at international level. There were no obvious signs of it happening - to be honest, I thought it had gone for ever - so I did the next best thing and went to Bath when the job became available.

"When, after an unexpectedly short time, the England situation arose, all my instincts were to pursue it. Everyone wants to work at the best possible level, don't they? I hope the Bath supporters understand that. If they don't, there really isn't a great deal I can do about it."

During those few months on the banks of the Avon, months that saw Bath progress to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup and record a Premiership victory over Wasps that was as complete as anything they had achieved in recent memory, Ashton worked with Michael Foley, the World Cup-winning Wallaby hooker who had joined the club as a coaching apprentice three years earlier. Foley left the Rec a few weeks before Ashton to take up a job as Australia's "re-starts" specialist - a fancy name for forwards coach. The battle of wits between the two of them gives this pair of Test matches much of their fascination.

"I'd say Brian is a pretty extraordinary coach," Foley said. "He's a conceptualist. If you're not really tuned in to the way his mind works, he can be an enigmatic figure. When I think of him, the word 'ambient' springs to mind. He creates an atmosphere in which the players live and breathe, and you can sense his influence by watching how they react to his ideas. And when you finally get a handle on what he's doing, the scales fall from your eyes and you see the light. You smack your head and wonder why the hell you hadn't thought of it yourself."

Ideas teemed out of Ashton during his first stint with Bath, which lasted from 1989 to the end of 1996. He recruited Jason Robinson and Henry Paul on short-term contracts from rugby league and showed them that the union game, widely despised in the North of England as a particularly clodhopping form of public school exercise, was a sport worthy of their attention. He challenged his team to keep the ball in play for something close to 40 of the 80 minutes - an increase approaching 25 per cent on the norm of the time. Later, when he coached England A in a rain-sodden second-string international against France, he talked the big-kicking Leicester outside-half Andy Goode into playing a more varied game considered entirely outside his repertoire. It was the making of Goode in the eyes of the Test selectors, who quickly drafted him into the senior squad.

And now? It would not be like Ashton to trot out a load of elderly stuff, circa 2001. "Since I last worked with England," he said, "I've had four more years of experience. It helps. I used to be quite dictatorial myself at one time. The sound of my own voice was a safety haven for me, a cloak of comfort. If things went wrong, I could say to the players: 'What do you expect? You didn't listen properly.' I'm not looking for havens or cloaks now. I'm looking for a challenge, and I'll find it by challenging the players themselves to be proactive and positive, to visualise opportunities that might arise in any area of the field, recognise those opportunities when they are on offer and maximise them.

"How do I see myself? As a pretty good technical coach - sound basics are absolutely central to what I do - and thereafter, as a facilitator. It's 30-odd years since I actually played this game, so it's pretty obvious the people I'm coaching should have an input. It's a case of putting together a think tank: not of coaches alone, but of coaches and players. It's logic, isn't it? Rugby union is a dynamic game, sometimes a very fast-moving game, and no coach in the world can pre-plan every second of a match. You offer guidelines, and challenge [that word again] the players to react. They'll have to react against these Wallabies, that's for sure. This is not fantasy land here. This is the real deal."

Nothing gets Ashton's goat more than being pigeonholed as a "backs coach". In fact, the phrase is up there with "high-risk rugby" on his list of no-nos. "I'm here to run England's attacking game, and the forwards are a part of it," he said. "If people expect me to galvanise our back division irrespective of whether the members of the pack win their set-piece possession and do the right things with the ball, they're barking up the wrong tree." And by way of clarification, he rejects the notion that the forward-driven style that won England the Webb Ellis Trophy about was about as interesting as observing drying paint.

"Do I really care how we win our matches? Ultimately, I suppose I don't," he said. "In 2003, we had terrific management and organisation and an outstanding pack of forwards. Any side coming home with a World Cup must have done something right." Then a pause. "But I suspect that if we win another World Cup while I'm involved, we'll do it playing some very striking rugby."

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little