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Ashton: England's lost leader?

The way some are telling it, Brian Ashton has been a peripheral figure in his team's sensational transformation at the World Cup. However, such an analysis fundamentally misjudges the England head coach and the way he operates, writes Chris Hewett in Paris

They are all surprised, even if they are reluctant to admit it in public.

Francis Baron, the embattled chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, did not imagine he would be spending the week in this wonderful city, looking ahead to a second successive World Cup final while performing acrobatic feats of mental arithmetic in calculating how much this latest extravaganza might be worth to his organisation. Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby, is utterly bamboozled as to how an unexceptional squad have made it this far. Even Brian Ashton, who knows more about everything that has gone on here than everyone else, is a little nonplussed.

Sixteen months ago in Sydney, on the eve of a heavy tour defeat by the Wallabies, the coach could be heard expressing the view that the Webb Ellis Trophy could not conceivably be retained in 2007 by a team playing the game of 2003. "Not in a million years," he said. "Do I really care how we win our matches? Ultimately, I suppose I don't, and any side coming home with a World Cup must have done something right. But I suspect that if we win another title while I'm involved, we'll do it playing some very striking rugby." Um. The knockout victories over Australia and France over the past 11 days had many virtues: they were brave and honest performances, drawn from a bottomless well of competitive spirit; they were also technically precise and tactically astute. But only the most myopic swing-lower from Royal Tunbridge Wells would describe them as "striking".

Which goes some way to explaining why Ashton is being dismissed in some quarters as a peripheral figure – a head coach only in name, a mere figurehead, a man whose direct influence on events ended in the immediate aftermath of the 36-0 defeat by the Springboks at Stade de France 33 days ago. The theory goes something like this: on the Saturday morning after the desperate Friday night before, the most influential individuals in the squad – the Phil Vickerys, the Jonny Wilkinsons, the Lawrence Dallaglios – decided among themselves how England would play for the rest of the tournament and told the coaching team they could either like it or lump it. In other words, player power saved the day by turning the England team into rugby's version of a constitutional monarchy, with the coach as Queen Liz and the other back-room staff as his pet corgis.

If Ashton is bristling at the rank unfairness and ingratitude of it all, he is generally doing it in the privacy of his hotel room in Neuilly-sur-Seine. He has addressed the subject on a number of occasions, pointing out that it was he who called the meeting, but only once has he given voice to his exasperation, saying: "I've heard and read things about the discussion that I simply don't recognise." His take on events is supported by others. "I know how some people are reading it, but it bears no relation to reality," said one very senior player. "The point about Brian is that he actively encourages us to say what we think, to put forward our own ideas. Of course, we made our views known. The good thing about playing in this environment, as opposed to some others I've encountered, is that you're given an opportunity to speak up. It seems a bit unfair to criticise a bloke for taking the very approach that made him a world-class coach in the first place."

It has not always been this way with Ashton. On the eve of the semi-final victory over Les Bleus, he made clear his dislike of "coaching by dictatorship". Yet he freely admits that during his first tour of duty with the Bath club – a long and unprecedentedly successful stint, in which he put together the body of work that established his reputation as one of Europe's leading thinkers on the game – he went through a tin-pot spell. "The sound of my own voice was a safe haven for me, a cloak of comfort," he told this newspaper last year. "If things went wrong, I could say to the players: 'What do you expect? You didn't listen properly.'"

This was precisely the approach used at this tournament by the authoritarian and deeply conservative French coach, Bernard Laporte, and it ultimately betrayed the hosts. While Ashton, who no longer felt a need for cloaks or safe havens, was spurning the very notion of a game plan in favour of a heavy emphasis on awareness, judgement and adaptability – "A game plan can go up in smoke in 10 minutes flat if the other lot come out and play differently to the way you expect them to play," he explained last Friday – Laporte was doing the polar opposite. When Frédéric Michalak, the errant genius of the hosts' midfield, was asked why he had come off the bench and kicked the leather off the ball, rather than used his hands to unlock England's defence as he had unlocked the All Blacks', he nodded in the direction of Laporte and said: "Why don't you ask him?"

There are coaches in Australia who also have questions to answer. John Connolly and Michael Foley, two Queenslanders who operated together at Bath before Ashton's return to the Recreation Ground in late 2005, were the men primarily responsible for preparing the Wallaby team at this World Cup.

Foley is very much a rugby-by-numbers man: when he describes Ashton, with whom he briefly worked, as a "conceptualist", it is not entirely certain that he means it as a compliment. Yet when the Australians met England in Marseilles and found themselves smashed at scrum and breakdown, the numbers failed to add up. Unable to string phases together on the Foley model, they disappeared in a fog of confusion. A Mark Ella or a Michael Lynagh might have come up with an off-the-cuff solution, but there were no Ellas or Lynaghs among the 2007 Wallabies.

Of course, Ashton recognises the importance of sound coaching – "I see myself as a pretty good technical coach," he says – but as one who suffers fools in the same way Margaret Thatcher suffered Arthur Scargill, he rather expects international rugby players to have a decent skill set and a reasonable understanding of the game from which they make their handsome livings. (If truth be told, he expects the same things from 14-year-olds). Principally, he considers himself to be a facilitator.

"You provide guidelines and you establish a broad framework, but you don't tell people what to do from minute one to minute 80," he once explained. "The day I run a session and have everyone marching around to the sound of one voice – my voice – is the day I pack up. What I'm interested in is creating an environment in which good players play well. It's 30-odd years since I actually played this game, so it's pretty obvious the people I'm coaching should have an input. It's a case of putting together a think tank, not of coaches alone but of coaches and players. It's not rocket science, it's logic."

As a selector, Ashton is some way short of perfection. Andy Farrell rather than Toby Flood in the original midfield pick? Shaun Perry rather than Andy Gomarsall as first-choice scrum-half for the opening matches with the United States and South Africa, despite the latter's form in adversity during the ill-fated trip to Springbok country last summer? There was precious little logic behind these choices. In addition, he made himself a hostage to fortune by publicly dismissing any claims Jason Robinson and Josh Lewsey might have had on the full-back position, and rejecting Joe Worsley as a candidate for the open-side flanker's role. During the competition, he has been forced into voltes-face on all three fronts.

But if the events of the past six and a half weeks have performed one service, it has been to expose all the old talk of Ashton's "romanticism" and love of "high-risk" rugby as the complete and utter tosh it always was. If England have tightened their approach and narrowed their game since the thrashing by the Boks – if they have identified their scrummaging as a major strength, backed themselves to swamp the tackle area and declared themselves content to play the territorial card on the back of Wilkinson's kicking – it has not been over the coach's dead body. Far from it. In rugby, self-expression comes in many languages – and Ashton rather fancies himself as a linguist.

As the great French coach Pierre Villepreux said of his close friend earlier this year, "His will be a different approach to that of Clive Woodward and Andy Robinson. Of this, I am sure. The players will not be given orders by him; they will be given responsibility. They will be free to make their decisions and because of this, England still have the chance to do well in the World Cup." He could not have been more accurate in his assessment. It is indeed the case that Ashton does not worry who makes the decisions. Just so long as they are the right ones.

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