Brian Ashton could have created a world-class attacking back division in half the time it took him to join England's new-look coaching team, but now the deed has been done. The white smoke appeared yesterday after endless weeks of deliberation on contractual minutiae and argument over the precise amount of compensation due to Bath in return for releasing their most prized asset from a three-year deal at the Recreation Ground.
The pieces are finally in place - Ashton was scheduled to join Andy Robinson, John Wells and Mike Ford today to complete preparations for this weekend's match with the Barbarians at Twickenham.
"The negotiations were protracted, but they are now complete," said Robinson, the head coach, who spent a good deal of time learning the ropes from Ashton in the mid-1990s. "We will bring in specialist help occasionally, but basically, the coaching team will be the four of us working together - a smaller, tighter, more concise unit.
"We have some challenging matches ahead, leading into next year's World Cup in France, but I'm confident we'll meet those challenges. By the middle of the 2007 Six Nations, I think you'll see the World Cup side coming together."
Both Bath and the Rugby Football Union denied that the pushing and pulling over Ashton had been as fractious as popularly believed. Indeed, Francis Baron, the union's chief executive, was fulsome in his praise of the club's representatives. "Bath have been very co-operative throughout the process," he said, before complaining of "unfair and inaccurate reporting" of the discussions. A little over a week previously, he had aimed some sharp words at the West Countrymen. Nine days is a long time in rugby.
Ashton's departure, barely six months into his second stint at the Rec, leaves Bath so far up a gum tree, they can barely be seen without the aid of a telescope. Slowly, they are piecing together a new back-room team of their own, having also lost Michael Foley to the Wallabies and Richard Graham to Saracens. But however much cash they may have received in respect of the 59-year-old Lancastrian, it will not be enough to secure an attack coach of comparable stature. No fewer than five of Ashton's charges - the outside-half Olly Barkley, the hooker Lee Mears, the tight-head prop Duncan Bell, the lock James Hudson and the open-side flanker Michael Lipman - will start against the Baa-Baas on Sunday, with a sixth, the loose-head prop David Barnes, on the bench.
However, Robinson's plans to expand his posse of replacements to 10 have been knocked back by the International Rugby Board, who insisted on them sticking to the official limit of seven substitutes.
Denied the services of those players involved in tomorrow's Premiership final between Sale and Leicester, the selectors have struggled to choose a truly formidable pack. Hudson has played precious few games for Bath, while James Forrester, of Gloucester, has been chosen out of position on the blind-side flank. But the back division, which has an Ashton-like veneer about it, boasts some exceptional attacking talent. James Simpson-Daniel and Iain Balshaw are among the most elusive runners in the English game; Mathew Tait and Mike Catt should, in theory at least, form a perfectly balanced centre partnership; and there are contrasting talents at half-back in the shapes of Barkley and Peter Richards.
Robinson said that Pat Sanderson, the Worcester forward chosen to lead the team to Australia for next month's Tests against the Wallabies, would play at No 8 this summer - a decision that explains, in part at least, the move to send Forrester on the second-string Churchill Cup tour. Robinson also said that Tom Voyce, the free-scoring Wasps wing, had recovered from hamstring trouble and would be flying to Sydney with the team.
England team v Barbarians
M Van Gisbergen (Wasps); J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), M Tait (Newcastle), M Catt (London Irish), I Balshaw (Leeds); O Barkley (Bath), P Richards (Gloucester); T Payne (Wasps), L Mears (Bath), D Bell (Bath), J Hudson (Bath), A Brown (Gloucester), J Forrester (Gloucester), M Lipman (Bath), P Sanderson (Worcester, capt).
Replacements: D Paice (London Irish), D Barnes (Bath), K Roche (London Irish), J Haskell (Wasps), S Bemand (Leicester), S Abbott (Wasps), D Armitage (London Irish).
Referee: D Courtney (Ireland).Reuse content