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Last Updated: Friday, 19 October 2007, 05:36 GMT 06:36 UK
Ashton goes his own way

By Mark Orlovac
BBC Sport in Paris

Brian Ashton and Clive Woodward
Ashton was part of Woodward's coaching staff from 1998 until 2002

When Sir Clive Woodward's England team won the Rugby World Cup four years ago, Brian Ashton's name was barely mentioned in the euphoria that followed.

Ashton worked alongside Woodward as England's attack coach for four years until 18 months before their triumph in Sydney.

But when he stood down for personal reasons in March 2002, the team's sparkling rugby seemed to go with him.

England powered their way to victory in Australia anyway, and Ashton - dubbed the "Yoda of English rugby" for his visionary approach to the game - took on a relatively low-key role at the RFU's National Academy.

Following a brief stint back at his old club Bath, Ashton returned to the England set-up last May and took the top job in December in the aftermath of Andy Robinson's disastrous tenure.

And now the 61-year-old has the chance to seal his own place in history by winning a World Cup of his own.

But even if Ashton and Woodward both end up with the sport's ultimate prize on their CVs, the two men could scarcely be more different - as coaches or as personalities.

Woodward, a former England and Lions centre turned successful businessman, brought management techniques to the world of sport after his appointment as England's first full-time coach in 1997.

Clive Woodward and Alastair Campbell
Woodward was happy to work in the world of media spin

He was an autocrat with a "we'll do it my way or not at all" approach, assuming absolute control over every part of the operation, and soon carving out a reputation as a maverick.

Woodward talked of "critical non-essentials", improving 100 things by 1% and employing specialists like a visual awareness coach and a kit technician, previously unheard of in an England dressing room.

The press were also used as part of his strategy. His verbal jousts with the likes of then Australia coach Eddie Jones were a regular part of the pre-match build-up.

Woodward's "judge me on the World Cup" plea nearly back-fired when England were beaten by South Africa in the quarter-finals in 1999, but having survived that setback he refused to let it derail his vision for the ultimate glory.

By the time England arrived in Australia for the 2003 tournament, they had a settled starting XV that was decided upon months before and Jonny Wilkinson's drop-goal sealed a victory years in the making.

"Clive had a team together for six years so it's completely different to now," said England centre Mike Catt, preparing for his second final on Saturday. "We understood what he wanted and he understood what he wanted to give us."

Ashton, meanwhile, is a straight-talking Lancastrian who has steered England from no-hopers to World Cup finalists in the space of just 10 months.

When he was appointed last December, the reigning champions were at rock bottom. England had suffered 13 defeats in 22 matches and seemingly had no hope of retaining their World Cup crown.


He came into the job quoting Muhammad Ali instead of a management textbook.

"Defy the impossible and shock the world," said Ashton. "I think England might well be in that position at the moment regarding the World Cup."

In the intervening months, the former history teacher tried to cobble together a squad he thought was able to mount a World Cup challenge.

With a host of injuries decimating likely candidates and a less than convincing warm-up schedule, Ashton admitted he did not know his strongest starting XV before the event started.

Unlike Woodward, Ashton has not been totally at ease with the media duties a head coach is obliged to perform, and refuses to engage in pre-match mind games.

Tetchy at the start of the tournament, Ashton has warmed to his role over the last few weeks as his team have progressed but would still prefer to be out on the training pitch rather than being quizzed by a crowd of journalists.

Ashton is regarded as a rugby visionary but his decision to leave his bright young things at home and select tried and trusted campaigners betrayed a more pragmatic streak which has only intensified as the tournament has progressed.

As Woodward noted this week: "England have not played the prettiest rugby, but it's just so effective."

Brain Ashton and Mark Cueto
Ashton is in his element on the training pitch
With plenty of experience in his dressing room, Ashton has been keen to hand responsibility to his players, even more so after the drubbing at the hands of South Africa in the pool stages.

The morning after the game, the squad held a clear-the-air meeting before Ashton sat down with all the key decision-makers in the squad to discuss the tactical way ahead.

England then went on to defeat Samoa, Tonga, Australia and France on successive weekends.

"He leaves a lot of it down to the players, a lot of the onus is on us," added Catt. "You can analyse teams hour after hour beforehand but things might go differently. It's up to the players to change that on the run."

After the quarter-final victory over Australia, Catt revealed that the players had ripped up the original game plan and run the ball rather than kicking it as instructed.

"I totally agree with him," said Ashton afterwards. "You can pre-plan as much as you like but when the players get out onto the field, the ball is in their court."

When Ashton took the job back in December, even the most ardent fan would not have dreamt that England would be playing the Springboks in a World Cup final.

But this England team now sit just 80 minutes away from retaining the Webb Ellis Trophy and Ashton has done it in a manner totally at odds with Woodward's blueprint for success.

"It's been a rollercoaster ride from all points of view," said Catt.

"For us to be in a World Cup final now, he has obviously done something very well to get us here. All credit to him."

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