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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 October 2007, 07:37 GMT 08:37 UK
What now for Ashton?
By Paul Fletcher

England head coach Brian Ashton
Ashton is keen to take England to the 2011 World Cup
The dust has only just settled on England's surprisingly successful World Cup campaign but already the Rugby Football Union faces some tough questions.

There is the issue of rebuilding after a team labelled Dad's Army exceeded expectations by reaching the final.

But most pressing of all is the position of head coach Brian Ashton, the man who presided over England's success in France.

THE SITUATION AS IT STANDS

Ashton was promoted from attack coach to his current position in December 2006, signing a rolling one-year contract that will soon be up for review.

Ashton succeeded Andy Robinson and inherited a team that had lost eight of their previous nine fixtures.

As Rob Andrew, the RFU's elite rugby director, has acknowledged, Ashton was on the wrong end of a "hospital pass".

But despite England's disastrous World Cup build-up, not to mention the desperate struggles in the early group matches, the team went on to reach the final, where they lost 15-6 to South Africa.

England elite rugby director Rob Andrew
Andrew has got some serious decisions to make

Having emerged successfully from the wreckage of England's preparations, Ashton now appears to be in a position of strength to negotiate a new deal.

It has been widely reported that the 61-year-old is in line for a new four-year contract worth more than 1m, a deal that would take him through to the 2011 World Cup.

Francis Baron, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, strongly hinted as such when he said: "Brian has clearly done a great job and I'm sure Rob and Brian will sit down to thrash out a deal as soon as the World Cup is over."

But Andrew, despite praising Ashton's work at the World Cup, has failed to confirm that the head coach will remain in his current role.

"We will review the World Cup correctly and properly in due course over the next few weeks, and we will look to go forward," he said.

"We need to reflect on what has happened. I am not going to be held to any deadlines."

SHOULD ENGLAND STICK WITH ASHTON?

Ashton is a vastly experienced coach who, superficially at least, worked wonders in guiding England to the final in France.

He has a reputation as a coach who encourages his charges to think for themselves and take control of situations.

The former schoolteacher is known to favour an expansive style of play, yet at the World Cup his team's success was built on a solid platform from his powerful forwards.

His style is to test players and his game is about utilising space

Jeremy Guscott on Brian Ashton

Expansive play was a rare sight from England at the World Cup but Jeremy Guscott, who played under Ashton at Bath, believes this shows his ability to assess the situation and craft an effective, winning team.

"His style is to test players and his game is about utilising space," Guscott told BBC Sport.

"But needs must and you have got to win games. Sometimes it's not the pretty way."

However, there have been persistent rumours that a players' meeting after the 36-0 thrashing by South Africa in the group stage was the catalyst for England's spectacular change of fortune.

Former England international Paul Ackford claimed in his Sunday Telegraph column that an insider told him the coaching set-up in the early stages of the World Cup was a shambles.

One senior player reportedly said that Ashton had to "pull his finger out and put some work in".

He added that there was confusion over the system of play, virtually no tactical assistance at half-time during the group games and there was too much responsibility on fly-half Jonny Wilkinson to "control the game".

England head coach Brian Ashton speaks to his beaten squad after the World Cup final
Ashton spoke to his players after the final - but his influence through the tournament has been questioned

Only after the meeting in the wake of the thrashing by South Africa, when the senior players took the situation by the scruff of the neck, did England's campaign really start to move forward.

Former England prop Jeff Probyn hinted at Ashton's managerial weaknesses when he was initially appointed head coach.

"Brian works well alongside others who make decisions. Coaching-wise he's the man to take England forward," said Probyn.

"But as a head coach, decision-maker and planner of the broader vision to take England forward, he's not the right man."

Ashton does not deny the significance of the meeting after the South Africa game but stresses that it was a process involving all the staff, not only the players.

"This was a real joint, inclusive effort," Ashton told the BBC.

"That is the way I coach, I am inclusive. I want senior players talking to me because they are on the field and I'm not.

"It's very important they take their game with them on to the pitch, not someone else's game, because when something goes wrong they will be looking around going, 'what do I do now?'"

Ashton's assertion has been echoed by England skipper Phil Vickery.

"It was a combination of players and coaches sitting down and trying to iron out some problems," stated Vickery.

606: DEBATE

"Ultimately, what came from that had a huge influence on how we did."

Veteran England forward Lawrence Dallaglio said that credit for the change in fortune must be shared.

"Brian Ashton turned things around but then again so did the players and so did all the coaches," Dallaglio told BBC's Inside Sport.

"I think a review will be done by the right people. Rob Andrew will head it up and I'm sure he will make the right decisions."

Ashton's analytical and tactical ability ensured the team were able to exploit French weaknesses in their semi-final encounter and push the Springboks hard in the final.

The unquestionable fact is that, inside a year, Ashton's England went from a beaten and bruised team to the World Cup final.

Ashton must take his share of credit for that achievement - whether that means he should be rewarded with a new contract depends at least in part on what role the RFU have in mind.

A NEW COACHING STRUCTURE FOR ENGLAND?

The bottom line may be that Ashton's position as it stands will not exist after the review process has taken place.

Ashton is currently England's head coach, with Mike Ford and John Wells as his assistants.

His role combines coaching the players with a wide range of responsibilities, including media duties.

England head coach Brian Ashton
Ashton is happiest when he is coaching the players

Andrew, as elite rugby director, oversees all aspects of representative rugby in England - from the regional academies to the full senior side.

But the upshot of the review process may be creation of a post of manager to slot between Andrew and the head coach.

It remains to be seen exactly how this would work - who would pick the team, have the final word on tactics, deal with the media etc - and whether Ashton would become manager or remain head coach.

Former captain Martin Johnson's name has been mentioned with the post of manager and having someone else fill that role might suit Ashton, if his preference is to concentrate on coaching.

A decision on what structure the RFU will adopt to take England forward over the next four years is expected relatively soon.

"We need to make sure we have a clear structure in place for the next World Cup and we'd like that in place for the next Six Nations," revealed RFU chief executive Baron.

Of course, another point worth considering is that the RFU may decide against keeping Ashton and opt for someone completely different.

Jake White, for example, guided South Africa to a World Cup triumph and has expressed an interest in coaching England.

DOES ASHTON WANT THE JOB?

It has been suggested that Ashton would like to change aspects of his role, particularly a reduction in his media responsibilities.

Some have also said that Ashton may be too old for a further four years of what is a high-profile role, with huge pressure to succeed.

I'm 65 in four years' time - everyone knows it's a pretty good retirement age

Brian Ashton

Ashton disagrees. "I'm 65 in four years' time. Everyone knows it's a pretty good retirement age," he said.

"I enjoy doing the job - I thoroughly enjoy it. England rugby has got a pretty exciting future.

"On reflection, I would rather stay than not but it's probably not my decision."



SEE ALSO
A new-look England?
22 Oct 07 |  English
Andrew vows to build on success
22 Oct 07 |  Rugby Union
Wilkinson was hampered by injury
22 Oct 07 |  Rugby Union
Video ref happy with Cueto ruling
22 Oct 07 |  Rugby Union
Vickery backs influence of Ashton
21 Oct 07 |  Rugby Union
Ashton future remains uncertain
22 Oct 07 |  Rugby Union
England 6-15 South Africa
20 Oct 07 |  Rugby Union
England 0-36 South Africa
14 Sep 07 |  English
Andrew accepts top England role
18 Aug 06 |  English


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