Brian Ashton: 'Coaching the England team is a bit like MI5'

He almost won the World Cup and was rewarded with the boot. Here, the former England coach opens up on his new life and his sadness over 'Bathgate'. Peter Bills speaks to Brian Ashton
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The Independent Online

Rugby union in England is in turmoil. Harlequins, one of the country's oldest clubs, are tainted by cheating in a fake blood scandal; the Bath club are beset by a drugs problem involving five of their players. Under a welter of criticism, the England national team have gone steadily downhill since winning the World Cup six years ago. And some of the leading players have quit, heading to France where the financial rewards are better and the climate far superior.

Who would want to have all those problems piled up on their doorstep every morning? Well not Brian Ashton, the former England coach who steered his country to the 2007 World Cup final and to within a handful of points of becoming the first country ever to retain the William Webb Ellis Cup.

Since his abrupt expulsion from the post of England coach, Ashton has built a new sporting life. And the broad smile upon his face, the relaxed, easy-going demeanour of the man tells you everything about his present state of mind.

As English rugby wrestled with its mountain of problems this week, Ashton was far away, based in, of all places, a Normandy chateau, from where he is running a two-week coaching seminar for young players. Around 250 youngsters aged from 15 to 18 have made the trip from England for a series of five-day camps. They could not have a better, more innovative and enthusiastic exponent of attacking rugby than the man the RFU decided was surplus to requirements.

So is Ashton enjoying his new life, revelling in the challenge that setting up and running his own multi-faceted business is offering him? Or is he pining for England and his old job as national coach?

He smiled. "I am enjoying all this very much. My life now is very entertaining with huge variety. That sort of time in my life has gone; I am enjoying different and new challenges being put before me. I was involved with England over a number of years and it plays a big part in your life. But do I want to wake up every morning now worrying about all those sorts of things? No. I am not missing it. I am enjoying life more than I was in a totally different way. I am doing all this on my terms, that is the most satisfying thing. Coaching an international team is a bit like MI5. You are working in a closed world."

The drugs affair that infected Bath, one of his old clubs, saddens him. "From the game's point of view, it is sad to read about such things. I think it is a danger in any professional sport that things like this can happen. They have done in other sports.

"You would have thought that the lesson would have been learned after the Matt Stevens affair, although I am not 100 per cent certain what happened yet. From Bath's point of view, it's certainly not great."

Ashton discounts the theory that young, highly-paid professional sportsmen, especially in a town like Bath where drugs are freely available, are especially prone to dabble in such things. "I don't agree that, just because these players are earning such money, they need to go down that road.

"Lots of people in the world earn more money than them but do not feel the need to engage in drugs. I would like to think this is not endemic in the sport."

But are not Bath culpable as a club, given the damage done to their reputation by Stevens' self-confessed drug taking? "For all I know, they may have tried to do more to alleviate it," Ashton said.

But how could the Bath club not know? "People that have these problems go to great lengths to disguise it. I am not au fait with the drugs world, I don't know how they do it. But I can't believe this masks a wider problem in rugby because I have no evidence to know whether it does or doesn't."

And the Harlequins fake blood affair, taken in tandem with the Bath drugs shame? "I would have hoped that the values and traditions of rugby would have prevented this sort of thing happening on a regular basis," he says.

Twickenham's decision to oust Ashton despite his near miraculous achievement of getting England to the World Cup final was bizarre. It hurt him a lot at the time yet hindsight is a wonderful thing in the human mind.

"I wasn't given the opportunity to continue; I was moved from my post. I had to take a decision what to do next but perhaps, with hindsight, it was the right time to do something else. Now I run my own business, I am in charge and can do what I like. So yes, I am certainly enjoying life in a different way, enjoying it more than I was."

He revels in the ability to share his rugby knowledge with others, swap views with people all over the world. He has coached in countries like New Zealand and the USA, offering an input. Part of his duties now include educating coaches, not just in rugby union but a variety of sports. In that field, he fulfils a part-time role for the RFU and is regarded as a valuable contributor.

He finds the sharing of information and ideas with others hugely stimulating, offering him as it does a real opportunity to think outside the box and look in a quite different way at his own sport. "When you coach a national side you find that very difficult to do. In this role, I find people around the world in rugby and other sports very open, willing to share their views and philosophies. It is a very exciting area to go into."

But what of the actual coaching of the game nowadays? Ashton challenges coaches to accept the responsibilities of their role by embracing a style that moves the sport forward. He says further law changes are not the only answer to the kicking which is beginning to blight the game in most countries.

"I hope we don't have to change the laws again. To my mind, a lot depends on why coaches are in the game. If you just want to get results and be a winner that is one way. But I think there is a responsibility on coaches to move the game on. If you are a coach, why would you want to produce the same as last year?

"Maybe someone at the top will be brave enough to say 'I am going to make an effort to shift the game on in this area'. There are some outstanding coaches around, like Wayne Smith and Robbie Deans, people you associate with having a more liberal view of what is going on in world rugby."

He produced an intriguing theory on why the Springboks have (before yesterday's four-try win in Australia) been playing such a tight, enclosed game this season, when they have such threats in their backs. "Maybe a strong-minded group of forward players want to play down the other end of the field because they know they can win a game of rugby there," he surmised.

He bemoans the current tendency to kick whenever the ball is pumped downfield, rather than trying to counter- attack with ball in hand. "Why would you decide in your own half this is not a prime time to turn over ball and attack? When you get the ball in your hands, you are the attacking side and that provides fantastic counter-attacking opportunities. Why just kick away that advantage? It seems a very negative way to play the game. It is safety first, taking the risk out of it and then this aerial ping-pong starts to develop. There is still enough space on a field to find room to attack, if you want to look. That is the key factor; you have got to want to look for room."

Life of ups and downs

Born: 3 September 1946, Leigh

Nickname: Grumpy

Playing career: Left school to work in a bank but was persuaded to play fly-half for Tyldesley in 1965, moving to scrum-half a season later. Joined Fylde then Orrell before training as a schoolteacher. Played for Lancashire but never represented England, although he was on the bench against Scotland in March 1975. Enjoyed brief spells in France and Italy before returning to England in 1980 to teach history and rugby at Stonyhurst College, where he would teach Kyran Bracken.

Coaching career: After a spell as England A assistant coach, became Bath's backs coach in 1989 and head coach in 1994. Appointed Ireland head coach after leaving Bath in 1997 before assisting Clive Woodward with England in 1998. Moved on to become RFU National Academy manager and finally landed job as England coach. A poor Six Nations in 2007 preceded a surprise run to World Cup final (with help from Jonny Wilkinson, above) in France, where England lost 15-6 to South Africa. In April 2008, he declined the offer to return to role of head coach of RFU National Academy. Awarded MBE.

James Mariner

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