- 11 Sep 07, 05:42 PM
Trianon Palace Hotel, Versailles - You had to feel for Brian Ashton.
Three days before the critical game of England’s World Cup campaign against South Africa, one that will probably define his reign as head coach, and things weren’t exactly going to plan.
He had no idea who will be playing fly-half, whether his first-choice tight-head prop would be available, who would take over as captain if he wasn’t, two centres in isolation with illness, and who his back-three cover on the bench would be.
England in disarray? You bet, although when the slings and arrows of misfortune are this outrageous, Ashton appears to have decided humour is the only response.
A week ago, after Jonny Wilkinson had twisted his ankle in a ‘non-contact’ incident, the “Mr Grumpy” moniker bestowed on Ashton by the Bath players of the early 1990s seemed apt for his tetchy display at his opening media conference on French soil.
He looked none-too-comfortable in the spotlight that day, and his mood had hardly improved, understandably so, after England’s dismal showing against the USA.
But Tuesday’s performance at England’s palatial Versailles hotel suggested he has adopted a different approach to the crisis management now required.
He kicked off his media conference to announce his team to face the Springboks by blowing into the microphone in front of him to see it was working, only to jump back in his chair in mock surprise when the ensuing reverberation ensured no-one was in any doubt that it was.
Having relayed the setback to befall Olly Barkley, Ashton was asked to explain how the Bath player had sustained his hip injury. “He was just running around,” he said with a resigned air. “There was no-one anywhere near him, as usual with an England injury. It would be nice to think there were 10 people kicking the hell out of him!”
With the possible ramifications (no specialist fly-half or goalkicker against South Africa – not ideal) running through the assembled journalists’ minds, Ashton was asked: “Is this your worst nightmare as England coach?”
“I can think of a lot worse nightmares than being coach of England,” he retorted.
What with an update on the extent of Barkley’s injury to come, Phil Vickery’s disciplinary hearing, the possibility of having to fly out a replacement fly-half, the rest of Ashton’s day was looking pretty busy.
“I’m not banking on going to bed tonight,” he quipped.
After a few more questions – including more reflection on Saturday’s effort against the USA (“you hope pretty fervently that you will never see a performance like that again”) - Graham Rowntree decided to lighten the mood further with a splendid cameo.
Asked a question about the South Africa scrum, the popular former Leicester prop, now part of England’s specialist coaching team, seized his moment with aplomb.
“Thanks for asking, one at a time please gentleman,” he lightly reprimanded his audience for waiting this long to involve him in proceedings.
“I could share with you my worst nightmare if you like,” he continued mischievously, picking up on the question directed at Ashton earlier.
“I am stuck in a room, with no clothes on… I am on the toilet, and I have got no paper…”
That was enough to bring the house down and leave Ashton, sitting next to Rowntree on the top table, rocking back in his chair, creased up with laughter.
It was good to see. Many regular England observers were concerned Ashton’s usual cheery bonhomie had disappeared under the strain of co-ordinating the defence of the World Cup.
But when he rose from his chair at the end, Ashton was smiling broadly. He almost looked like he had enjoyed the experience for a change.
Whether he is still smiling after Friday’s match of course is a whole different question.
Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.