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
Saturday 10 June 2006
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."
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