England Expects – Can Henry deliver?

In a corner of the RCC clubhouse (conveniently near the bar) is a widescreen television which is dedicated to sports not involving leather on willow. This member has been watching it very often of late as he follows the unfolding drama at Twickenham, home of Rugby Football.

As is well known, England Rugby’s head coach, Andy Robinson, was relieved of his duties in November after a run of bad results that rather inconveniently stretched back to the beginning of his reign in 2004. The big news this week was that, despite warnings from Rob Andrew (director of Elite rugby at the RFU) that the search for a replacement could take till after the rugby world cup next summer, a new head coach had been found. That man was announced as being Brian Ashton, currently the attack coach for the national team.

It is an interesting appointment. Ashton, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Henry Cooper, has had a chequered career. Highly successful at Bath Rugby between 1989 – 96, less so as head coach of Ireland between 1996 – 98, Ashton’s first stint with England was as an assistant to Sir Clive Woodward between 1998 – 2002. Given that England went on to win the RWC in 2003 you might have thought that this was a marriage made in heaven. Not quite, for in the words of Sir Clive, Ashton was ‘[n]ot that good in terms of winning international rugby matches.’

So, where does this leave him now? Firstly, despite Sir Clive’s dismissal of him, I think we can be confident that Ashton is a good coach and is as good a man as any to get England out of its present rut. You mention Ireland, I’ll mention Bath – plus the fact that some of the best England players past and present vouch for him. Secondly, it leaves Ashton very vulnerable to being wounded by the slings and arrows of the press. Because he has had his lows as well as highs, I do not think Ashton will be given a very long honeymoon by Fleet Street. Come the Six Nations in February, he will be expected to start with a win and to keep on winning thereafter.

If England fail to deliver the goods, although the RFU are denying that he is a stop gap appointment until after the RWC, that could well be what he becomes. Thirdly, it leaves Ashton within touching distance – yes, even so – of the kind of glory that Roman generals dreamed of. The England national team is not a poor side. It is simply a very good side that has lost its way.

We lost badly to the All Blacks this autumn, but a year ago the team came within a whisker of beating the best team in the world. At the 2006 Six Nations, only a dodgy referring decision prevented a win against another in form team, Ireland. If Ashton can find the magic ingredient, he would amaze the rugby world and – even if not bring victory to England in the Six Nations and RWC – then restore a great deal of long lost pride that could act as a springboard to greater success in the future.

Only time will tell whether Ashton is given his triumph or is made to fall on his sword. But this reporter hopes with all his heart that our Brian can deliver the knock out punch.

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