He’s coached both teams and, no matter the knives that have been plunged into his back, Brian Ashton continues to flourish.
The former Ireland and England coach remains much in demand from good judges of rugby around the world. A recent stint working in New Zealand alongside coaches like Graham Henry underlined the point and many attribute England’s flounderings since he was axed as national coach, to his departure.
But Ashton flew back to England early this week to grapple with a couple of intriguing issues. Why have Ireland consistently failed to win the top honours and why have England become so indisciplined since his departure?
As ever, Ashton’s views made for compelling listening. Ireland, he insists, cannot talk of achievement until they have landed a Championship title, at the very least.
“I would have to go with home advantage this weekend” he said. “But then, this tournament always throws up one bizarre result each year. I’m not saying it would be bizarre if England won. But Ireland must be favourites.”
Yet Ashton talks of an air of uncertainty that has hung heavy over Irish national rugby for years. “Ireland in the past four years have almost got there every time….but not quite. And it’s difficult to know why. Looking at them on the field there is experience throughout the side in major decision making areas and they have produced some special players.
“You would think this could be their year. Yet there is this air of uncertainty. Ireland have to overcome that soon.”
Ashton believes this weekend holds the key to the 2009 Championship. If Wales and Ireland win, he expects a Grand Slam decider, a winner-takes-all clash in Cardiff on the final day of the season. Only by winning that, he insists, could Ireland lay claim to greatness.
Three Triple Crowns in four years? This is not a currency he deals in. “The Triple Crown is the runners-up prize. Given the quality of players Ireland have had in their side in the last three to four seasons, they would have been hoping to achieve at least one Championship win. Under their structure, they should be producing some pretty smart results year in year out, no matter what the opposition.
“They have certainly not met expectations so far and they will know that if they lose this weekend, their Championship hopes will probably go down the drain.”
He subscribes to the general view that Wales and Ireland are the pre-eminent sides. But he says the key thing for both teams is to make sure they get over this weekend’s hurdles. He is scathing about the lack of preparation time offered French coach Marc Lievremont for Friday night’s international against Wales in Paris, after two of the leading French clubs, Toulouse and Clermont-Auvergne, played a vital club match last Sunday.
“With an international this Friday, all that does is devalue international rugby. That would never happen in the southern hemisphere where international rugby is still king.”
But what of England, harassed, vexed, under pressure England? You could almost see the tears falling from the red rose in recent weeks through a series of disasters like a key player thrown out of the squad for self confessed drug abuse, players constantly yellow carded and the attack coach getting his radar muddled by attacking the South African referee for penalising England so much in Cardiff.
Ashton is bewildered at such antics. “I can’t work out why it is all happening. I wasn’t aware we had an indiscipline problem either at the World Cup or during the Six Nations last year - I can’t remember anyone getting yellow carded. But now it seems it’s a chronic problem.
“I have always contended that the breakdown is a very physical area but it’s a decision making area too. If you are contesting ball that is already lost, that’s not very bright. Or if you continue to contest the ball when the referee has said it’s lost, that’s not very bright either.
“England need to learn some lessons smartly. I am an immense believer in individual leadership on the field. Every player has to stand up and execute his own role and take responsibility. Some players will go through their whole careers without being pinged at the breakdown so it is the individual’s responsibility to make sure he plays on the edge and plays the referee correctly.”
What about England’s criticism of Jonathan Kaplan after Cardiff? “My experience of international referees is they’re very good at communicating to players what they want at the breakdown and when they think they shouldn’t be contesting the ball. If players ignore those messages they are stupid.
“It’s true that a guy like Martin Johnson played on the edge during his own career but he knows as well as anyone that if you step over that edge, you will get penalised for it.
“For me, it’s down to the individual responsibility of the players. I cannot believe the present England management is not reinforcing that message time and again. But if the players go on infringing, you have to question whether they can really handle international rugby.”
So the stakes could hardly be higher this weekend. Ireland have to win to keep their Championship or even Grand Slam hopes alive. England are already under such pressure they know they have to get a result and improve on Cardiff and the notorious indiscipline.
“England have everything to play for” is Ashton’s assessment. “If they win, it could turn their whole tournament around with France and Scotland still to play at home. But the players on both sides will know themselves they can only focus on this weekend, nothing else. It’s vital they focus on the job on the day. If you start looking forward, it’s usually fatal.”