When the decline began in 2004, not least with Sir Clive Woodward's England conceding 50 points to Australia in Brisbane, the most senior professionals were asking why Brian Ashton was running the National Academy in Bath. "We have the best coach in Europe training the Under-12s," said Lawrence Dallaglio. "Explain that one to me."
Three seasons later the avuncular Ashton, at the ripe old age of 60, has become the Red Rose head coach, succeeding his protégé Andy Robinson. The good news for Ashton is that things can only get better. All he has to lose is the World Cup.
"I'm looking forward to 2007," he said at Twickenham when his appointment was confirmed. "If I didn't think I could handle what people call pressure I wouldn't be sitting here now. I believe I can make an impact in terms of taking the England team forward, and that begins with creating the kind of atmosphere that will allow the players to start enjoying their rugby. I've held very firm views on this throughout my career.
"I know what this job is and what is expected of me. It's the most important coaching role in English rugby. I hope the slump in fortunes has bottomed out, because if it hasn't there'll be a lot of pain coming my way."
One of the more intriguing aspects of Ashton's promotion, which was widely expected, is its informality. "There is no time limit on Brian's appointment," said Rob Andrew, the elite rugby director. "I'm just delighted he has agreed to take on the job." Indeed. From the outside it looks as if Andrew has the best of both worlds, a sort of insurance policy. If the coach pulls it off, Andrew can take reflected glory; if he doesn't, Ashton, as he has said, will face the pain.
There has been a lack of long-term planning here. Ashton's second coming cost the Rugby Football Union big time in compensation to Bath, whom Ashton had rejoined, replacing the Australia-bound John Connolly. He had only been back at the Rec a matter of months when England, fourth in the Six Nations for a second successive season, had their infamous review and disposed of all the coaches bar Robinson.
At that time Ashton was in charge of the academy and therefore on the RFU's payroll. He could have made the switch on a "free transfer".
"Unfortunate timing from everyone's perspective," he admitted in the summer. "Bath's, the RFU's, mine. No one could have predicted the turn of events between the start of the Six Nations in February, when England beat Wales convincingly, and the end of it in March, by which time they had lost three games. The truth is this: after leaving England in 2002 I hoped and prayed I would be given an opportunity to resume coaching at international level. There were no signs of it, and to be honest I thought it had gone forever."
When Ashton was re-recruited in April it is understood he did not sign a contract. The fallout from England's fall had not run its course. Ashton says he is not interested in the politics of the game, and he need not worry on that score. Andrew will take care of that, beginning with the club-country issue. Whereas Sir Clive revelled in taking centre stage, on rugby issues or anything else, Ashton, like Robinson, is most comfortable in a tracksuit, hence the speculation over the appointment of a team manager.
Andrew would not discuss that, merely confirming that he would sit on selection alongside Ashton, John Wells and Mike Ford. "It's not a matter of voting rights," Andrew said. "It's more of an advisory body. The head coach will pick the team and the head coach is Brian." And it's Brian's head on the block.
Even so, the RFU have a shortlist of three for the role of manager: Dean Richards, Nick Mallett and Warren Gatland. Strangely, Richards, the director of rugby at Harlequins, has been sounded out not by Andrew but by Kevin Bowring, the RFU's head of elite coach development. Ostensibly the meeting was about academies, but off the record Richards was asked if he would be interested in making the move from the Stoop to Twickenham.
If Deano, a one-time hero of the Red Rose pack, joined England it is possible that Quins would not even have to replace him. But it is not a small if, for Andrew and Richards have had words in the past. It is by no means an isolated case. When Andrew was in charge at Newcastle he managed to upset most of his rivals in the Premiership.
About the only thing that is clear is that Ashton has the Six Nations and the World Cup to turn the good ship England around. When he was coaching the backs five years ago the England structure was built on the lines of an ocean-going yacht, and he has now inherited a barge.
"I'm not looking at this from a job security point of view and the thought of public scrutiny does not concern me," Ashton said. "I have strong opinions on how we can improve our performance at international level and while I'm not looking beyond the next match, against Scotland in February, it's certainly my goal to mount a very strong defence of the World Cup. It would be fantastic to be the first side to retain it."
Fantastic and, funnily enough, not impossible. With a fair wind and a clean bill of health the majority of the England team who won the World Cup can be reunited and Ashton has, under his tracksuit sleeve, some of the "Under-12s", who in the new year have everything to play for.Reuse content