Nick Townsend: Ashton takes place in history after failing to make it

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As the final whistle sounded like a blade to the heart he struggled down through the gangway, politely edging past fervent Springbok followers. Then, quietly and with typical dignity, Brian Ashton went among his players and told each how proud he was of them.

"Defy the impossible and shock the world", England's head coach had commanded his men, shamelessly plagiarising Muhammad Ali's quotation. When the time for sober reflection comes, this England will be recognised as the team that astounded the world. The other bit was always going to be rather more problematic. They faced Jake White's mean and obdurate side, so copiously talented in so many quarters,who eventually merited their wild celebrations, albeit by the narrowest of margins.

By late in the second half it was apparent that, barring a gross South African aberration or an inspired piece of improvisation from England, it was just beyond Ashton and his men to provide a successful conclusion to these weeks which have entered the nation's sporting folklore. So it wasn't to be. No back-to-back World Cups; no tap of the Queen's blade on Ashton's shoulder; no open-top bus rides.

Yet all that has occurred here in these last few weeks, and that includes Ashton's response to yesterday's game's principal moment of controversy, should remain a source of profound pride for the Lancastrian. Had he resembled one of his football counterparts, no doubt the dummy would have been spat out over the try that wasn't. It was a defining moment if ever there was one, given the scarcity of scoring opportunities.

Mathew Tait, in whom Ashton has always had faith even after that inglorious introduction at the Millennium Stadium when he was upended by Gavin Henson, was instrumental in a move which also involved Andy Gomarsall and Jonny Wilkinson before Mark Cueto plunged over the line under the challenge of Danie Rossouw. The seconds ticked away as the television match official, the Australian Stuart Dickinson, examined all angles. It was all accompanied by a sound effect like a pounding heartbeat; like a game show in which the competitors are deliberately made to await their fate. One can only imagine what went through Ashton's mind when the referee, Alain Rolland, signalled "no try".

"I'm really, really disappointed for the players, not myself," Ashton said afterwards. "They, South Africa, deserved it. They were the better team."

Sheer will, desire and bloody-mindedness have been responsible for England's re-emergence; by no means the kind of rugby which Ashton espoused before he became England's head coach. He had acquired an almost missionary zeal for "fearless" rugby on his travels, which took him as a player from his origins at Tyldesley, Fylde and Orrell to Montferrand, Rome and Milan before a natural propensity for coaching sent him on a journey with stop-offs at Bath and an ill-fated stewardship of Ireland before he joined the England set-up.

Throughout the tournament, I have often recalled his words to me two years ago when he was manager of the Rugby Football Union's national academy, a finishing school of sorts from which emerged Olly Barkley, Ollie Smith, Matt Stevens and Tait. "I've always felt that I was actually born in the wrong country – for the way that I want to coach the game," he said. "I should have been born in a country that naturally had a little bit more flair and romanticism than maybe we've got here in England."

It was one thing to possess such religious fervour when you don't actually have responsibility for the England team. He was not to know that was all to change a year later when it was decided that Andy Robinson could take the senior England side no further. It will be fascinating to observe in which direction and with what purpose he and the elite rugby director, Rob Andrew, guide England's international rugby after this. In this World Cup, with only nine months to conjure a winning team from seemingly impossible circumstances, his attitudes were remoulded by the environment in which he found himself and the England team.

Yet he carried that Ali quotation into the job and into this tournament. It can be a perilous matter, identifying in any sense with the finest sportsman of his generation, indeed of many. There had been times when the words threatened to rebound upon those genial, rubicund features. Not least five weeks ago, when these opponents beat England emphatically.

This was certain to be a different matter entirely, though. Ashton had Wilkinson returned to him since then, and Robinson had also recovered as we arrived here, 36 punishing days later, on a chill autumnal evening.

Ashton's men conjured occasional moments of inspiration in the first 40 minutes, but too many errors damned the ambition England harboured. Strains of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" welled up from their followers, but nervously as Percy Montgomery's kicking proved ominously efficient.

Then came the disallowed try. Would a sense of grievance raise England or galvanise South Africa? Both, to a degree. But having already lost the captain, Phil Vickery, to injury, Robinson departed. And hope, you sensed, left the field with the full-back.

It all left Ashton, the history man, failing to imprint 20 October 2007 in the chronicles of English sporting endeavour. He should be regarded no less for that.