Josh Lewsey, the wing who scored the solitary try in England's semi-final victory over France, was in hospital yesterday, undergoing checks on an injury to his right leg that may prevent him participating in the last act of the holders' defence of their world title at the same stadium in Saint-Denis this coming Saturday. Brian Ashton did not seem to care. Utterly serene in his approach to this tournament, the head coach reacted to the information about Lewsey as he has responded to every other piece of bad news – with a pledge of faith in whoever may be called upon to wear the shirt in the next game.
"When this squad was selected, we specifically went for people who knew how to win – who could find their way through the last 15 minutes of a close match, who could play with composure at difficult moments, who had experience of handling tight situations," he said. "It took us a while to get the show on the road – a month ago, after the [36-0] defeat by South Africa, I'd have had to think long and hard before suggesting we might get to this point – but it wouldn't surprise me now if this group of players completed the job. I certainly can't imagine them dropping into a mindset in which they feel satisfied simply to have reached the final. We've won four on the bounce since the Springbok game, all of them cup finals in effect. I hope we make it five this weekend."
Ashton rarely speaks of individual players – to him, the squad ethic is all – but he made an exception yesterday by applauding the contribution of Phil Vickery, the tight-head prop from Wasps whom he appointed captain last December. "Phil is a quietly-spoken sort, but for a prop, he's a deep thinker about the game," said the coach, who once regarded scrum-halves and stand-offs as the intellectuals of the sport. "He always seems to come up with the right thing to say. Last Friday night, he made a pretty moving speech to the players – a speech in which he explained what the semi-final meant to him, and what he felt it should mean to them. Basically, he's my ideal captain."
Faced with predictable accusations from certain locations south of the equator – Auckland was prominent among them, as was Sydney – that his side were playing a kind of anti-rugby based around strong scrummaging, iron defence and a big kicking game, the coach did not so much as bat an eyelid. Was it difficult, given his well-earned reputation for freeing players from the shackles of the gameplan and encouraging self-expression on the field, to watch them approach these major fixtures with such narrowness of focus? Ashton adopted the expression of a man who had just been asked the world's second-daftest question. (The most daft, he felt, was one concerning how he might feel if he became Sir Brian as a consequence of winning on Saturday).
"We're approaching these games in the way we think we can best win them," he said. "I don't believe a team needs this thing called a gameplan. What I believe in is adaptability. I back the players I send on to the pitch and I give them a fair amount of responsibility. Yes, we have a framework in respect of how we want to play, and there might be one or two directives from the coaching team as to how we feel a particular match might be won. But I hate coaching by dictatorship and I'm not a control freak in any sense of the phrase. I bet some of those people talking about our 'style' of rugby from thousands of miles away wish they were sitting where I'm sitting now."
If Ashton was reluctant to single out players for special praise, with the understandable exception of the man to whom he turned when he felt he needed a leader, Rob Andrew was less reticent in praising the coach for his efforts.
"We'd suffered eight defeats in nine games, which equalled the worst run in our history, but I don't think either of us doubted the players were there in the English game," said the Rugby Football Union's elite rugby director, who took up his post less than four months before asking Ashton to succeed Andy Robinson in heading up the back-room team.
"There is an enormous amount of talent coming through – we had some outstanding young players [Mathew Tait, Dan Hipkiss, Toby Flood, Matt Stevens] on the pitch at the end of the semi-final. But as we all know, it's about results. As far as public perception is concerned, this run has restored some faith."
Did Andrew feel a second World Cup win would be a greater achievement than the first, four years ago? He did not answer directly. "While everyone else has been focusing on the fact they they would be on their way home if they lost against Samoa or Tonga or Australia or France, the coaches and players have concentrated on rugby things, which are the things that matter," he said. "They have found a way of dealing with the situations they encounter, on a minute by minute basis."
To judge by his tone, he has nothing but respect for their fortitude.Reuse content