“Brian should be deciding who he needs and what he wants – nobody else should be involved. Who is in charge of the team, who is selecting? You have to have one person who lives and dies by those decisions because you know that, if things go wrong, he will be left to carry the can.”
Sir Clive Woodward.
Two games into the 6 Nations and to England supporters the highs of the latter stages of the World Cup seem a mile away, increasingly akin to a tiny glimpse of sunshine in a long and brutal winter. Message boards have been full of statements that Brian Ashton is out of his depth, lacks vision and leadership and is not cut out to be the top man. It is all too easy to pin the blame on the Head Coach; he is after all the man regarded as accountable by the paying public. But a peak beneath the surface reveals far more deep-rooted problems than the identity of the man who holds the reins.
After the World Cup, the RFU announced a full review of everything to do with the England team in order to escape the morass of mediocrity which had enveloped them. When Andy Robinson was removed, short term measures were put in place to try and salvage something from the World Cup. A coaching team of contrasting styles was cobbled together and, although far from perfect, they muddled through to the World Cup final. The RFU then had the opportunity for a fresh start, to put the measures in place to create an elite environment which bred success and excellence. They bottled it completely, producing an unholy fudge from which no good could possibly come.
The identity of the man appointed as Head Coach is by the by. The key thing is that they tied his hands behind his back from the very start. As Sir Clive Woodward states in the above quote, the Head Coach is the man who is accountable, who must stand and fall by the performance of the team. He should therefore be free to make all decisions on all matters even vaguely affecting the team and their performance. Everything surrounding the environment in which the team live should be his call.
Ashton has been allowed nothing of the sort. He has been given a joke of a contract and a coaching team not of his own choosing. His fellow coaches are not answerable to him but to the RFU, yet he is the one who will be held accountable – is it any wonder that negativity has seeped into his previously optimistic approach to the playing of the game? If it was he who had put everything in place, who masterminded the game plan and pulled all the strings, and the team still drastically underperformed, then he could expect nothing less than to be answerable. That he is working in an environment not of his making, yet still having all criticism directed straight at his front door is far from fair.
Contrast his position with that of other coaches in the 6 Nations. Thomas Lievremont and Warren Gatland have come in and acted decisively, taking the chance to have a look at players, establish their own culture and lay the foundations for their tenure over the next few years. They have been given a firm contract and are building a long term plan from the bottom up. They will live by it and take the consequences if all goes wrong. In contrast, Ashton is playing for his job every game. Add to this the fact that he is working with people reluctant to buy into his vision and he has an impossible job. His differences with John Wells are well-known and that climate of doubt and negativity permeates through to the players, creating an environment miles away from the excellence for which everyone should be striving.
This is all down to the RFU. Ashton is a decent man who will never speak out on such matters but he must be feeling that he is not being allowed to give 100% to his job. The RFU’s fudging has created climate of uncertainty as players don’t know who they will be playing for in a year’s time. If the Head Coach, whoever it may have been, had been given a proper contract and allowed to implement his own policies then the players would feel more established and more inclined to buy in. The short-term fix has been extended to the long term but with no tangible change in the way matters are conducted. So why did the RFU sanction such a non-decision?
The polite answer to this question is self-interest; the blunt answer is cowardice. The decision was made because it contained a ready-made get out clause if things went badly. Rob Andrew and his men were clearly unconvinced by Ashton but realised that if they removed the World Cup final coach and things went wrong then they would look ridiculous. Andrew’s claim that Ashton’s is an indefinite contract is nonsense. It is blindingly obvious what has happened – a situation has been created by which, if Ashton does well they can claim credit for backing him, if he does badly they have an escape route and can be seen to have acted decisively when they remove him. It is cowardly administration at its very worst.
Whether Ashton is the man for the role is almost beside the point. Whoever the RFU decided to appoint, whether it was Brian Ashton or Brian Blessed, they should have backed him to the hilt and given him the chance to get on with his job. In not doing this, they have failed everyone who has England rugby’s best interests at heart. Forget half-time team talks, controversial selections or incoherent gameplans; it is in this that England’s disappointing 6 Nations performances have been rooted. It is the people who put together the self-interested fudge who are responsible. And will they be held accountable? Will they hell.