Ashton works for a future with no fear

England's next generation are learning to cast aside the national inhibition
Click to follow

He had sat there, in front of his television, transfixed. "I've always felt that I was actually born in the wrong country - for the way that I want to coach the game," he says. "I should have been born in a country that naturally had little a bit more flair and romanticism than maybe we've got here in England." What had excited him, and clearly still did, was the manner in which, when they had to, Toulouse "just exploded from nowhere, and played 45 seconds of absolutely sublime rugby that no one else in the world could play."

The fact that Toulouse's triumph had been inspired by their scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde would not have been lost on a former No 9, now a crucial figure in the England support hierarchy as the man ultimately responsible for identifying and cultivating the next generation of élite players.

He has been the Rugby Football Union's National Academy manager since he was charged with responsibility for its genesis in 2002. "When I got this job, I had a blank sheet of paper, and I thought 'where do I go now?'," he recalls. "So, I spoke to Rod Marsh who'd just taken a similar role with cricket. I learnt so much from him."

He runs a finishing school, if you like, but where the concentration is on tackling, technique and tactical prowess, utilising the most advanced technology. Located at the magnificently-appointed Sports Training Village at Bath University, there are three levels: Junior (up to 19); Intermediate, (from under-19 onwards), and Senior, who train with the full England squad. Those who have already benefited from the expertise of Ashton and his staff include Olly Barkley, Ollie Smith, Mathew Tait and Matt Stevens.

Those who have already caught the eye of many judges are the Leeds pair of scrum-half Danny Care and wing/full-back David Doherty. "I think this whole group is particularly talented, and I've no doubt that technically these lads could hold their own in the Premiership, but physically, and emotionally, too, at the right time, they've got to be able to handle that move up to international level," says Ashton. "To step on to that pitch with the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, and not go 'Oh, wow!'."

Which brings us, not altogether tangentially, to Newcastle's Tait, whose world turned upside down at the Millennium Stadium earlier this year. "Andy [Robinson] did speak to me about him, and he said 'is he the best No 13 in the Premiership at the moment?' At the time, he probably was so there was a sound basis for considering him," says Ashton. "I still don't think he had that bad a game against Wales. It is remembered because [Gavin] Henson picked him up and dumped him. But he lost confidence and his game just went steadily downhill. He hadn't had a lot of experience of life, let alone rugby, and he must have found it quite difficult to handle. However, he's a massively talented player and I believe that he's back to his best."

Ashton, born in Leigh, Lancashire, was synonomous with Bath's pre-eminence in the early Nineties, before contributing to Sir Clive Woodward's England revolution as assistant, concentrating on attack. He may not possess a wardrobe full of England caps, but he does possess the vision based on his travels, which took him as a player from his origins at Tyldesley, Fylde and Orrell to Montferrand, Rome and Milan before a natural propensity for coaching despatched him on a journey with stop-offs at Bath and Ireland, before joining England.

Speak to this avuncular 50-year-old, and the conversation can alight on a myriad subjects, from the influence on him of Muhammad Ali to the lessons that can be learnt about human behaviour from Mussolini and other 20th century dictators - Ashton's special interest in his former life as a history teacher. "I read a book by Muhammad Ali's daughter - I'm a massive fan of his - and she said his philosophy of life was to the effect of 'defy the impossible and shock the world'," he says. "I've used that as a basis of what we're about here at the National Academy."

He adds: "Too many coaches have a fear factor. If their team start playing in and around their own 22, they'll be thinking 'hang on, I'm not sure we should be doing this'. But I've banned the word 'risk' from our vocabulary. I'd hate to think that, as a coach, I'd ever be involved with a team that felt inhibited in any way."

The current junior intake are unlikely to establish themselves until the years leading up to the 2011 World Cup, but Ashton, who is also England A coach, will scrutinise closely developments amongst England's rivals in the forthcoming internationals. "Australia are rebulding. They'll find it very difficult at Twickenham," he says. "England should beat Samoa. But the New Zealand match will be fascinating. It's at the end of a long season, and a massive ask for them, but I've always admired the All Blacks, and Graham Henry and his management team have brought a bit more freedom to the game, and given more responsibility to the players."

And from a coach who has long articulated such virtues, there can be no greater praise.

Comments