Brian Ashton knows there are only two important things about international rugby: the first is winning, and he cannot for the life of him remember the second. As England did their fair share of winning during last year's World Cup – rather more than their fair share, according to the legions who despised the defending champions' muscle-bound approach – the head coach is in no mood to apologise for what he openly admits was a narrowly focused strategy. He wants his team to play with more adventure in the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, but does not intend to force the issue.
"I don't seem to have much of a reputation as a pragmatist," he said yesterday in his first major interview since watching his team finish nine points shy of the Springboks in the World Cup final three months ago, "but I can be as pragmatic as the next man when the situation demands it. We're about to step back into tournament rugby and there is a title to be won. The England side will change, out of necessity as well as personal preference, but as to how long it will take ... that's a question without an answer. All I know is that it can't be done at the flick of a switch.
"As I keep telling people, this is not a brand new start. We're halfway through a season, looking to add things to our game that will make life more challenging for our own players, more involving for the people watching and more difficult for our opponents to handle. I like to think I'm a loyal sort anyway, but the idea of throwing out some of the older players just because they won't make it to another World Cup never crossed my mind. These people took us to a final last October, they're still keen and they're still performing well. And I'd look pretty daft, I think, if I told Phil Vickery or Mark Regan or Simon Shaw that this Six Nations would be their last fling for England, and then discovered they were the stars of the show."
Ashton is stronger now than at any point in his year-long stewardship – no mean feat, in light of what many considered to be the weakness of his position in the immediate aftermath of events in France. He had been pilloried in the public prints for much of the competition, some chroniclers enthusiastically peddling the theory that whatever England achieved, it had nothing to do with the coach. Two senior players, Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt, gave voice to misgivings over his running of the operation – if Catt's comments were some way short of hyper-critical, Dallaglio was plain brutal – and with Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby, taking his time over offering a new contract, the vultures scented a kill. It must have been a rotten few weeks.
"Not really," he replied, with the quiet dignity that marked his handling of the entire saga. "If anything got under my skin, it was the length of time things dragged on. But then, I always knew Rob intended to carry out an exhaustive review process, and when I look back on the amount of ground that was covered, the sheer volume of detail gathered about aspects of the campaign that no one outside the squad ever talks about, I understand the necessity of it."
Was he ever uncertain about his future? "The only uncertainty I experienced – and it was more a case of serious reflection than uncertainty – was my own feelings about carrying on. Basically, I had to ask whether, with the World Cup over and my contract expiring in December, I wanted to continue. I decided I did.
"Yes, I would have liked us to have played a more challenging variety of rugby during the competition. We weren't the most fluent team by a long way, or, I suppose, the most interesting. But there was a great deal of satisfaction to be derived from reaching the final, given where we were at the start of 2007." And where might that have been? "Around eighth in the world rankings and struggling badly, in all sorts of ways. It was a difficult situation for everyone involved: masses to do, no time to do it."
Last August, just before the start of the global gathering, Ashton privately admitted that he was surer of the starting line-up for England's first game in the 2011 World Cup than he was of the one for the game against the United States some three weeks hence. Was that really true? And if so, how horrified was he at the position in which he found himself?
"Of course, it was the truth," he said. "We genuinely didn't know the make-up of our best XV. People might say, 'You're the coach, it's your job to know', and I'd see their point, but the fact remains: if you don't know, you don't know. And we didn't. If some of that was down to me, I'll hold up my hands and plead guilty. However – and I'm really not making excuses here – there were a number of factors beyond our control.
"We had a plan for the warm-up matches that simply didn't work, partly because Wales fielded an understrength side in the first game at Twickenham and partly because the players trained hard through the whole period – much harder than they would in a normal international window – and were completely knackered by the time they went up against the French in Marseilles. As a result, we found ourselves comparing people who had played well in a soft opening match with people who had found things rather more testing against a really good French team taking things really seriously. Sometimes, best-laid schemes don't come to fruition because they're affected by outside elements. It could have been worse, though. There are people living 12,000 miles away who planned everything down to the last nut and bolt for four whole years and found that didn't work either." Are you listening, down there in Auckland?
Some felt the coach buckled under the weight of pressure in the early stages of the tournament, particularly after the bovine display against the United States on the first weekend and the 36-0 humiliation against South Africa six days later. While Ashton insists he never went into freefall, he does not deny the existence of severe stresses and strains.
"It started before the United States game, actually," he confessed. "I'd been in France a day or so when there was a big meeting between the coaches and referees. At 61, I thought I'd seen most of the things rugby had to offer, but when I looked around me and took in the quality of the coaches in that room, I thought: 'Jesus Christ, this is really it.' Suddenly, I was aware of the huge intensity a World Cup generates. That intensity didn't ease for a moment. It was always there, right the way through the seven weeks."
His response led naturally to a discussion of another meeting – or rather, the meeting. After the white shirts ran up the white flag and conceded defeat in that desperate first contest against the Boks, the holders went into emergency session in an effort to thrash out a survival plan. The way some presented it in the days and weeks that followed, this was the moment when the poor bloody infantry took over the trenches and told the brigadier that they would be making the decisions from there on in. This seemed more than a little far-fetched at the time, and has since been dismissed out of hand by many of those present. But something happened, for sure.
"My view of what took place is quite straightforward," Ashton said. "There was a good deal of talk, very honest talk, and everyone who wanted to make a contribution did so. Contrary to popular belief, there was no swearing that I can remember. What I do remember is a considerable amount of disagreement between the players themselves about things we'd done in the build-up to the tournament. What emerged was a need for clarity, and I think we found that clarity pretty quickly. In fact, it took us one training session in Versailles, conducted at half-pace – a session witnessed by quite a few members of the public who couldn't have understood the significance of what they were watching. It was a matter of going back to the principles we'd discussed at our camp in Bath in late June. The moment that training session was over, I was confident we'd get the victory we needed against the Samoans."
The rest, as they say, is history. So what of the future? Ashton remains as radical a free-thinker as any currently working in northern hemisphere rugby, and as he will be spending considerably more time with the England players under the terms of Twickenham's new agreement with the Premiership clubs, which comes into effect in July, anything and everything is possible.
"Adaptability," he said, firmly. "That's what I'm after, ultimately. The longer I spend in coaching, the more I'm convinced that the ability to adapt is absolutely central to success at the top level. I'm not simply talking about reactive adaptability – the capacity to take the right course of action when your opponents do something you didn't expect them to do – but what I call proactive adaptability, which is much more difficult to achieve.
"To my way of thinking, only the very best sides can play at a certain pitch, then, having lulled the other team into the comfort zone, suddenly explode for 20 minutes, leaving everyone thinking: 'Bloody hell, where did that come from?' The trigger for it is something we all want to find, and I believe it comes from a coach breeding in his players a massive confidence in their ownership of the game." Any examples? "Toulouse can do it. I still find them the most electrifying side to watch."
Happily, Ashton is increasingly entertained, if not quite electrified, by some of the things he sees in the Premiership. He has not always been polite about the standard of league fare in England, but now believes several teams in the top flight – Newcastle and London Irish were mentioned in dispatches, as were Gloucester, Saracens, Wasps and his beloved Bath – are beginning to play modern rugby in a modern way.
Like any national coach, he would like to see more of his Test contenders in starting line-ups. He cannot, therefore, have performed too many cartwheels when Sale, current home of the Six Nations squad scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth and the brilliant young up-and-comer Ben Foden, announced that Dwayne Peel, the first-choice No 9 for Wales, would be joining from Llanelli Scarlets at the end of the season. After all, the position is one of Ashton's principal concerns.
"It's a mathematical fact that three into one won't go," he remarked. "I can't tell Richard or Ben what to do, and it's important to point out that Sale are perfectly entitled to pick whoever they like, but if I can't watch talented players play... well, it doesn't make life any easier, does it?"
One last question, then, as the subject of talented players has been raised. Why in the name of all that is holy, did he drop one of England's most highly skilled individuals, the Newcastle midfielder Toby Flood, from the World Cup party? Ashton raised his hands in mock surrender. "I got that one wrong, didn't I?" he admitted. "When Jamie Noon picked up that nasty injury against the Boks and we sent for Toby as a replacement, he turned in a couple of terrific performances." Then, as an afterthought, he added: "I don't get it right every time, you know. I'm not the Pope."Reuse content