TALKING SPORT WITH NEIL TRAINIS
PUBLISHED: 13:49 13 March 2008 | UPDATED: 12:40 11 August 2010
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BRIAN ASHTON is in danger of being remembered as a man out of touch with modern sport rather than a wily coach who guided the England Rugby Union team to a World Cup final. On one level it would be a crying shame if the shrewd campaigner, who has clung to
BRIAN ASHTON is in danger of being remembered as a man out of touch with modern sport rather than a wily coach who guided the England Rugby Union team to a World Cup final.
On one level it would be a crying shame if the shrewd campaigner, who has clung to an attacking philosophy throughout his coaching career and often promoted creativity before pragmatism, was undermined by an old-school mentality off the pitch.
When one of his up-and-coming players was photographed leaving a London nightclub recently at the hardly horrendously late time of 12.30am and appearing completely sober, the response of the head coach was not one of methodical thinker but short-tempered headmaster administering punishment to a pupil.
Danny Cipriani later claimed he was merely dropping tickets off for a friend inside the Mayfair nightspot and one member of the bar staff interviewed by a national newspaper suggested the youngster drank only soft drinks and stayed for around 20 minutes before leaving.
His club Wasps decried what they regarded as an out-of-proportion-to-the-crime punishment and to emphasise their support for Cipriani, included him in their squad for the Guinness Premiership match against Harlequins.
There are, of course, arguments to back up Ashton's actions in denying Cipriani his first ever international start.
Some would argue that dropping the 20-year-old fly-half for the Six Nations match against Scotland at Murrayfield was necessary in providing Cipriani with a dose of reality and the clear message that international rugby players have a duty to themselves and to those they are role models for to behave professionally.
The Rugby Football Union described Cipriani's actions as "inappropriate behaviour" and it must be said that traipsing the streets of London after midnight is not ideal conduct from someone whom the coach has placed so much trust in.
But was Cipriani staggering about with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and an arm around a blonde?
Did he stick two fingers up or lunge at the photographer who snapped him as he made his way home?
Are these questions Ashton asked himself as he proceeded to scrub out the name of England's most exciting fly-half since Jonny Wilkinson from his starting line-up for a match his team would go on to lose miserably?
Ashton once said: "My main strength is as a coach. I see my job as improving players individually, to do the technical work with them and also to establish the environment, the framework, in which the players operate."
Surely improving players entails more than what goes on in training. Does it not involve an understanding of what makes each individual tick and an attempt to handle them in recognition of their specific character traits.
Cipriani, at worst, was naive but he was not reckless and it would be stretching it to say he was unprofessional, yet the two years since his arrival on the rugby scene should have taught Ashton that what he has on his hands is a brash, confident, young man simply enjoying life, not a thug immersed in trouble.
Perhaps what Ashton was fearful that Cipriani would deteriorate into a Joey Barton or Paul Gascoigne and felt the need to nip in the bud relatively harmless antics before they materialised into something more serious.
Cipriani, though, is not the kind of unintelligible cauliflower-eared knuckle-head who can barely spell his own name and a little faith in the player's awareness of what amounts to trouble on Ashton's part would not have gone amiss.
Ashton's critics would suggest that England's defeat to Scotland, which included Wilkinson's poorest display for his country, was a perverse poetic justice for Cipriani's omission and the coach has not helped himself reduce credence from the barbs that have flown his way.
"I have taken the decision regarding Danny and the matter is now closed. I will keep an open mind on selecting him for future games," was all Ashton offered after taking a decision he was to reverse for the Ireland match in which he would drop Wilkinson and recall Cipriani.
Being a good coach in modern sport also requires an effective handling of the media but Ashton has often given the impression he has little stomach for humouring the press.
A proper explanation of his reasons for leaving Cipriani out, as well as his subsequent ejection of Wilkinson from his line-up, may not have afforded him breathing space as the shadow of South Africa's World Cup winning coach Jake White looms over him.
Yet it might have gone some way to watering down the notion that the 61-year-old is stuck in the past instead of operating in an era in which carefully-thought responses rather than knee-jerk reactions are as important as picking the right players for the right positions.