Brian Ashton: England's man on a mission

He has just a few months to turn a struggling side into genuine candidates to retain their World Cup crown - starting with next weekend's Six Nations opener against Scotland. Chris Hewett, who has known the new England head coach for more than a decade, assesses the strengths and weaknesses of a much misunderstood tactical guru

It is a few minutes before five on a dank November evening at Twickenham, and England have just bludgeoned their way past South Africa, thereby winning an international match for the first time in nine months. Andy Robinson, head coach of the shop-soiled world champions, wears the expression of a man snatched from the steps of the guillotine by the Scarlet Pimpernel - a mixture of shock, gratitude and blessed relief. He praises his players to the high heavens, paying tribute to their commitment, their energy, their bloody-mindedness. And beside him, Brian Ashton rolls his eyes in weary frustration as if to say: "It's not my idea of a victory."

Another snapshot of the coach who will mastermind England's defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy in France this coming autumn. The subject under discussion is a Somerset Under-16s trial at Millfield School, where 150 youngsters are attempting to catch the eye of the county selectors. "Do you know the first thing I'd have done, even before people got changed?" Ashton asks. "I'd have sent 100 of them home, unseen. How the hell can you do anything constructive, or learn anything of value about anyone, in a zoo like that? One hundred and fifty players? Bloody daft."

He has his ruthless side, this 60-year-old Lancastrian - a side that will come to the fore over the next fortnight as he seeks to launch his stewardship of the England team with a couple of ship-steadying Six Nations Championship wins over Scotland and Italy. Earlier this week, he promised the nation a helping of "no-bullshit rugby", and if this came as a rude shock to those who consider Ashton to be one of the dyed-in-the-wool romantics of the union game, it said more about them than it did about him. The Nutty Professor? Everyone's favourite uncle? A soft touch? No, no and no again. Like the great French coach Pierre Villepreux, who spent much of his career pigeonholed as a Rousseau raging against the rationalists, Ashton knows what it is to be misunderstood and misrepresented.

"This notion that Brian believes in what we now call Barbarians-style rugby is completely wrong," says Andy Nicol, the scrum-half who joined Bath in 1994, partly because Ashton was coaching there, and went on to lead both the club and Scotland with considerable success. "What interests Brian is space - how to create it most effectively, how to use it to the maximum. Space will always exist in the far-flung areas of the field, beyond the outside centre position. Everyone knows that. But in high-pressure rugby, there's no point chucking the ball as wide as you can as early as you can, because you'll be taken apart. The key thing is how you free up and capitalise on space closer to the action.

"In Brian's world, it comes down to sound thinking and correct decision-making under pressure, underpinned by a complete command of basic skills. A training session with him is remarkable in two ways: firstly, he gives people an enormous amount of freedom to react to the situation in front of them, rather than respond purely on the basis of where they might be on the field; secondly, he places huge emphasis on the building blocks of passing and catching. He's a thoroughly nice bloke, but if you drop a ball without a very good excuse, he'll be down on you like a ton of bricks and make life very uncomfortable indeed. Basically, he's not interested in people who don't have the skills he takes for granted. If you're lucky enough to have those skills, he'll challenge you more than any coach I've ever met. He's radical, he's imaginative, but believe me, he isn't away with the fairies."

Ashton played his rugby in Nicol's position, and played it well enough to be selected for England's eight-match trek to Australia in 1975 - a tour so soaked in violence that had it taken place 20 years later, it would have left rugby union struggling to justify its own existence. "He was a cheeky sort of player - one of those nippy, whippy, get-the-ball-away-fast scrum-halves who never seemed to get caught by the opposition forwards," recalls Alastair Hignell, the Bristol full-back who joined him on the trip. "We played together in the first match, against Western Australia in Perth. It was one of the good days - we scored a stack of tries and put 60 points on them. Brian didn't wear the shirt again, though; he left the tour early because of a family illness back home. At least he missed the rough stuff."

At that time, Ashton was playing for the Orrell club. Next door was Wigan and its stellar rugby league side, very much the pride of the community. He was, and remains, a great aficionado of the 13-man code - "I was a season ticket holder at Wigan for years and saw some wonderful stuff," he says. Twenty years on, having succeeded Jack Rowell as head coach at Bath after a trophy-laden spell as his deputy, he would take the lead in using union's newly professional status as a bargaining chip to lure two of the biggest league names to the Recreation Ground. Jason Robinson and Henry Paul agreed to try their hand at the "other" game and participated in a marmalisation of Swansea so thrilling and complete that it pointed the way forward for the whole of the sport in England.

For an exhilarating few months in 2000 and 2001, Ashton pulled the same trick at Test level. England played 14 games between the start of one Six Nations Championship and the end of the following tournament, winning 12 of them - the defeats were a wholly unnecessary one in Scotland and a distinctly dodgy one in South Africa - and scoring more than 500 points at an average of 36. The try count? Four a game. In Six Nations rugby, where Ireland were defeated by 50 points and Wales conceded a total of 90 points in two matches, that figure rose to five. Nicol says this England side played the best rugby he ever encountered, anywhere in the world.

But between those two high-wire performances, Ashton fell to earth. He loved the Bath club with every corpuscle of his sporting being - "I was teaching down in Somerset, went to the Rec to watch a game between Bath and Vale of Lune, stayed for a beer as you do, got chatting to Stuart Barnes and John Hall, bumped into Jack Rowell, agreed to join the coaching team that evening and had the most fabulous time" - but felt driven to leave in the early days of 1997. There were too many cooks in the kitchen, not so much spoiling the broth as poisoning it. Good friends of long standing were falling out with each other, the atmosphere was hellish and matches were being lost as a consequence. Ashton felt he was being undermined, and he walked away.

He would walk away again soon enough, this time from Ireland, who appointed him head coach in a caretaker capacity before the 1997 Five Nations tournament and then offered him a six-year contract, the longest deal in the history of the game. It was an arrangement based on trust and understanding: Ashton did not understand the Irish, many of whom did not trust Ashton. He ridiculed their approach, particularly that of the team manager, Pat Whelan. "Pat is an Irishman and I am an Englishman; he is an amateur and I am a professional," he said at one infamous press conference. They, in turn, pointed accusatory fingers at him, castigating him for his refusal to attend Irish club matches and criticising his selection policy.

A painfully difficult visit to New Zealand, clumsily labelled an A/Development tour was the low point. In Ireland, it became known as the Arrested Development tour. After a narrow defeat by Scotland in the opening game of the 1998 Five Nations, Ashton stoked the fires further by saying: "I don't know whose game plan that was, but it certainly wasn't mine." A fortnight later, he contracted a bout of shingles and handed in his notice.

There would be bad times of a different kind four years later. England, prospering under the stewardship of Clive Woodward, had won their opening two championship matches - 74 points and 10 tries in 160 minutes of international activity - but then lost in France. Ashton's marriage was in trouble, Woodward felt his colleague was in too distracted a state to continue, and the cord was cut swiftly and decisively. When Ashton resurfaced, it was as manager of the nascent national academy. England won the World Cup without him, and did not turn to him again until the spring of last year, by which time he had remarried and rejoined Bath as director of rugby, while the Test team had become a laughing stock.

Now, that team is his to do with what he will. Can he make a difference? Villepreux, his friend and mentor, believes he is capable of great things. "I am so pleased to see him working at this level, which is the right level for a man of his abilities," the sage of Toulouse said this week. "He will be a different coach to Clive Woodward and Andy Robinson. Of this, I am sure. The players will not be given orders by him; they will be given responsibility. They will be free to make their decisions and because of this, England still have the chance to do well in the World Cup. But Brian has little time to change the mentality, the culture, the habits of his players. This is his challenge: to do what he needs to do quickly."

A committed Europhile, who played pioneering rugby in Italy before moving into coaching and made a point of visiting Toulouse in the early 1980s to learn from the master, Ashton treasures his friendship with Villepreux, with whom he shares so much. "Let me tell you a funny story about Pierre," he says. "We were playing golf together at Stonyhurst many moons ago, and the course was fenced off from the neighbouring fell, where sheep were grazing in considerable numbers. Pierre brushed against the fence as he was playing a shot, and electrocuted himself. It's amazing how far you can hit a ball when that happens."

Happy, carefree days. The two men move in different worlds now: Villepreux works for the International Rugby Board in a behind-the-scenes kind of way; Ashton is centre stage, with the spotlight shining in his eyes. It will be an interesting few months for him, to say the least. Can England retain the World Cup? Privately, he clings to that belief. Can they retain it playing the kind of rugby with which they won it in the first place? He has already made his views public on that one - something along the lines of: "Not in a zillion years."

As he said in an interview with this newspaper seven months ago: "Do I really care how we win our matches? Ultimately, I suppose I don't. Any side coming home with a World Cup must have done something right. 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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