The Brian Ashton Interview

Brian Ashton maintained a low profile while the mud was slung in all directions over his departure from the England head coach’s job. In December’s IRN he broke his silence for the first time to reveal what he really felt about the way his sacking was handled

The storm has passed. The grey, grim days filled with worry and anguish are already blurring into the memory.

Brian Ashton sits in a Wiltshire country pub, eases his small, lean frame comfortably into a deep leather chair and sips a cup of coffee. It is almost a year since he was leading England to the 2007 World Cup.

They travelled, in the eyes of most, as nohopers: a disorganised side with four years of upheaval and failure behind them.

The 36-0 group stage humiliation by South Africa merely confirmed the point; obituaries were duly penned.

Yet four remarkable weeks later, England found themselves in the final and finished nine points short of becoming the first rugby nation in history to defend its world crown. For most organisations, this would have been enough to arrange open top bus tours, signing sessions and a host of biographies. But not English rugby. After endless weeks of uncertainty and intrigue, Ashton lost his job as England coach in circumstances that, to say the very least, were far from satisfactory.

Ashton emerged with his reputation intact, his head held high. Even today, partly because he still has a role as a consultant with the RFU, he refuses to castigate those who became his executioners. Not all those painted as villains were guilty, he hastens to add.

But whatever the motives of a few, Ashton survived the painful experience for the same reason he has emerged from many tough times in his life.

He attributes that ability to move on, to shrug and be philosophical, to his up-bringing and the values instilled in him by his parents all those years ago in Lancashire.

“They were tough times, we never had much at all,” he says. “But the values my parents taught me are something I have kept all my life. I am not a person motivated by greed or money, by jealousy or bitterness. For me, life is too short for all those things.

“It was, however, a pretty tricky time, I am the first to admit,” he says on the weeks of speculation over his position.

“I was never clear about what was likely to happen next and it seemed to drag on for a long period of time. It didn’t spill into my private life, although I’d have to be honest and say I have slept better. But the worst thing was it affected the people around me. They became very anxious and stressed about what was going to happen.”

But of course, he did suffer. “You go through all the emotions on a daily basis, and sometimes all of them every hour. It would be unusual, against the make-up of human nature if you didn’t.”

Did he think he would stay? “I wasn’t sure, to be honest. The week before the decision was made, the RFU announced a new management structure was to be put in place. It was said they hoped all the present coaching staff would buy into it. I assumed that included me.”

It didn’t. Soon after, England admitted they were dispensing with a man who had led them to their best finish in a Six Nations Championship for five years and runners-up position in the World Cup.

“I’d have to say, there are a few people in my life I wouldn’t bother crossing the road to talk to.”

He could have been vengeful and bitter for the rest of his days.

But Ashton isn’t that type of person. So how did he handle it? “When you get to my time of life, you have been through so many ups and downs in so many areas of life, you realise things like this are liable to jump out and hit you,” he says. “But other things always emerge and these things tend to fade away. But I’d have to say, there are a few people in my life I wouldn’t bother crossing the road to talk to.”

He uses the term ‘roller-coaster’ to describe his whole 15 months as England coach. He knew when he took over it would be a challenge.

England had sacked Andy Robinson after what had been too long a period without obvious direction. In truth, England had declined ever since the moment Martin Johnson had lifted the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Sydney.

True to his traditions, Ashton set out to adopt a pragmatic approach.

“When you looked at the players who possibly would be available for the 2007 World Cup, many had been there, done it before and were playing well in the Premiership. My hope was that over the period of time of a tournament, they would galvanise into a team that was very difficult to beat.

“By and large, that is what happened. We weren’t the prettiest side in the world but not many liked playing us.”

He believes to this day that England could, and perhaps should, have won the final. “Mentally, we should have had the edge going into that match,” he says. “It was a bizarre situation because South Africa must have thought they had buried us with that 36-0 group stage win. Then suddenly, we were lining up against them in the final.

“I don’t know how much general, real deep-seated belief there was among the players that we could win that final. I had the belief but I don’t know whether they did.
Unfortunately, around the time we had that try disallowed, I felt we tried to play catch-up rugby and lost mental clarity.”

By then, of course, extraordinary statements and stories were leaking from the England camp. They told of players virtually running the team, of widespread dissatisfaction with Ashton’s coaching and
philosophies. None of this, it emerges now, surprised him.

“None of that was a distraction to me. I wanted the players’ input; it was a normal way for me to operate,” he says. “I accept it is a challenging form of leadership but I believe it is the best way for long term success. I still had massive belief in the qualities of those players who were there. I knew what was happening and was happy with the way things were developing. I also had an outstanding captain in Phil Vickery who, besides still being a Test match player, is a great man.”

At half-time at Twickenham four months later as England went to their dressing room having hammered Wales for 40 minutes, Ashton must have been equally happy. The Six Nations looked like starting with a bang for his team - they had a 19-6 lead and it seemed victory was assured.

When he returned to the dressing room 40 minutes later with England beaten 26-19, Ashton was bemused.

“There was a touch of the surreal about it. In fairness to Wales, to fight your way back from that deficit takes a bit of doing. But we did give them a helping hand.”

And doubts had begun to emerge in Ashton’s mind about some of his players. “When it came to it, it seemed we didn’t have players that could put teams away consistently. Against France and Ireland we did but we couldn’t do it on a consistent basis.”

Ashton highlights the difference between the 2003 and 2007/8 England sides. “If you look back at our 2003 World Cup side, about eight England players would have been contenders for a World XV side. Now, if you are in a World XV team, you must have massive leadership qualities. With all due respect to some of the players that played in the Six Nations this year, you wouldn’t say that.

“If a World XV side had been selected last March, there wouldn’t have been eight England players able to reach such a level. Those qualities develop over time.”

This is the starting point for his belief that professional rugby has been far from the runaway success some would pretend. In particular, he is firmly of the opinion that there remains an arrogance within the game, certainly in the northern hemisphere, and that players have been placed in a vacuum where their own beliefs and opinion of themselves have been allowed to mushroom to dangerous levels.

“When players also had jobs in the amateur era, I believe the decision-making was better,” he says. “They had to make decisions in everyday life, so when it came to rugby they were used to doing that. But since rugby went professional, these young men have been nothing but full-time professional rugby players and most have led a very structured lifestyle. A lot of decisions about what to do have been made for them.

“There has to be a link between that and what is happening on the field. Most of those England players who reached their peak in 2003 played in the amateur era. You could talk about anything to those players, but I find the contemporary group are different.”

He doesn’t mean they are less personable, but they have been brought up from a rugby point of view in a completely different environment. An environment, he fears, that might not encourage them to step forward and be proactive in making decisions.

What he always sought as a coach was a scenario where players would have the confidence to stand up in a meeting and say ‘I don’t agree with that and this is why’. It meant young men were developing their thinking and were prepared to be counted for their beliefs. But he wonders whether that actually happens very much on a regular basis.

“Rugby is a massively confrontational game in every sense and it mirrors life,” he says. “You are faced with tough times and you have to make some tough decisions.

“But I fear we are going down the football path in all this. I mean why would teams want to train behind closed doors? When England trained at the University of Bath, our sessions were almost always open. You don’t play in a sanitised environment on a Saturday so how can you prepare in one?”

There are plenty of smiles and laughs. This is no bitter and twisted individual; indeed, he has already moved on. “It was a fabulous honour to be asked to be England coach,” he says. “It was an excitement of fire-fighting my way through 15 months and we came out with a pretty good record.

“But ultimately, I am frustrated that having got to the point where a lot of new-generation players whom I knew well from my time running the Academy were beginning to appear, I will not have the opportunity to continue working with them.”

But he concedes there is another frustration. “I never got out of the England team what I and other coaches got out of those England sides from 2000 to 2002. Those sides of that era went on to the field and really showed the rest of the world what they were all about. In international terms, that era was my greatest achievement and brought me real pleasure.

“My approach then was exactly the same as later. But we had different personalities, people not afraid to have an informed opinion and players and coaches not afraid ‘to have a go’. And maybe the environment we were operating in by 2007 made that quite tricky.”

He acknowledges that rugby union is still young as a professional sport, calling it ‘a voyage of discovery’ as to where the game wants to get to.

But he believes mistakes have been made since the advent of professionalism. “The game has been up blind alleys it could have avoided,” says Ashton.

“There was a big gymnasium cult, making the players bigger and more powerful. But perhaps more time could have been spent on the understanding of the game and developing various technical areas of the sport.

“Perhaps some of the subtleties and nuances have been overlooked. I think we should be shifting the balance of coaching away from the groups and the team towards improving the individual.

“Globally, the game could have moved forward naturally and not been forced into making law changes if the people involved in had looked at it more laterally.

“You wouldn’t say rugby has definitely, at the moment, stamped its own professional model on the world of sport. In fact, there are criticisms that it has just copied other sports. And that is due to a lack of vision. Professionalism hasn’t yet taken rugby where it could have gone. Where could it go? That’s unanswerable. But to arrive at the moon you have got to reach for the stars. Has that ever happened in rugby?”

Even at 62, Ashton intends to reach for the stars in his new working life. Does the challenge ahead mean all the pain and frustration of the past has drained away? “I don’t think you can say all that has just run off you exactly,” he says.

“But you have got to back yourself to work hard and make the highs you have known in your life come back.

“Having the courage to fail is one of the greatest ways to learn in life and progress. Too many just play safe and stay in the comfort zone. I’m not prepared to do that.”