TO say that Lancashire coach Brian Ashton loves rugby doesn’t get anywhere near describing exactly what he feels for the game.
It’s a bit like saying Romeo had a tiny crush on Juliet, or the great Muhammad Ali could box a bit.
Rugby has consumed his life, and during a 16-month stint at the helm as England coach he guided them to the final of the 2007 World Cup in France, where they were narrowly beaten by South Africa.
Now as England prepare for today’s Six Nations clash against the French, Ashton recalls that dramatic semi-final victory in Paris, Johnny Wilkinson’s boot landing two late kicks as the champions fought back to reach their third World Cup final.
“After England had beaten Australia in the quarter-final I always knew we would defeat France,” said Ashton.
“Bernard Laporte, the French coach, worked really hard to Anglicise the French way of playing, bringing more discipline to their game, but it reduced the French flair.
“France ended up playing like England.
“I said to Phil Vickery, there’s no way we’ll lose because we’ve been playing like England for 140 years.
“We weren’t in any danger of losing that game.”
At the final reckoning, England’s unfashionable old troupers who had defied logic throughout the tournament, lost with honour to South Africa at the Stade de France.
“Looking back to that World Cup we’d risen from the dead in many people’s eyes,” added Ashton.
“We lost to South Africa five weeks earlier and got hammered 36-0 in a group game.
“That was probably South Africa’s best performance of the World Cup, and they probably couldn’t believe they were meeting England in the final after they’d thrashed us earlier in the competition.
“I really felt we were in with a chance of winning the final, but I’m not sure a lot of our players believed it.
“When Mark Cueto’s try was disallowed we had a couple of chances after that, but we tried to force the game and that’s the sign of a side not sure whether it is going to win.
“South Africa was the best team though. England did well to finish as runners-up – I don’t think anyone expected us to get anywhere near that.”
The decision by Australian video judge Stuart Dickinson to chalk out Cueto’s try outraged England fans – Ashton said the official made the right call.
“It was the right decision to disallow the try,” said Ashton.
“I’ll never forget going up to meet the officials after the game, though.”
Ashton had previously worked as Sir Clive Woodward’s England coaching assistant following a spell at Bath, and he also headed up the Rugby Football Union’s academy for three years.
In between, Ashton carved out a teaching career at Stonyhurst College in the Ribble Valley.
“I had eight very happy years at Stonyhurst, it was a very special time in my life,” he added.
“Dick Greenwood, who was assistant-bursar at Stonyhurst, persuaded me to take up the post of history teacher and rugby master.
“Dick got the England coaching job while I was there, and when he left I took charge of the first 15.
“His son Will, who was to be a World Cup winner with England, attended Stonyhurst St Mary’s Preparatory School.
“Will was a fantastic footballer, cricketer and golfer, but became a world champion rugby union player as a key member of England’s World Cup squad in 2003.
“Former pupils Kryan Bracken and Iain Balshaw were also in that World Cup squad, so Stonyhurst has an amazing rugby union legacy.”
He admits that teaching helped him to try and perfect the art of coaching.
“There are strands of teaching and coaching that are very similar in terms of organisation, communication and the ability to create a learning environment so that players get better.
“That’s what teachers do every day, and in an environment that challenges pupils and makes them better people and better performers.
“I travel to schools and universities all over England, talking to coaches about my philosophy.
“This enables me to constantly add and learn. It’s funny, many people will remember me as a professional rugby coach.
“But I regard myself as a teacher because I taught for 28 years and coached for 12.”
Ashton stepped down from his role as coaching consultant with Fylde last year. During Ashton’s time with Fylde, the club were crowned champions of National Two North and finished fourth during their first season in National One.
Now he is employed by kit manufacturers Kukri Sports as sports ambassador.
“Kukri is a really go-ahead company,” he said.
“Their brand is completely different to any other kit producers and to be their sporting ambassador fits my philosophy.
“I also run the Brian Ashton rugby academy, which is part of my role with Kukri and a creative way of challenging youngsters to do things differently and to be never satisfied with what they do.
“The mind-set determines how people will behave under the pressure of competition “In life, people who don’t have the courage to fail just trundle along in a straight line.
“They don’t go anywhere – they sit in a little comfort zone and that’s where they remain.”