Saturday 21 April 2018

Neil Francis: Stuart Lancaster has shown there's still honour in the game - now he needs to find his nasty side

Saracens' Chris Ashton. Photo: Paul Harding/PA Wire.
Saracens' Chris Ashton. Photo: Paul Harding/PA Wire.
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I'm not sure if I know anyone on this side of the pond who likes England winger Chris Ashton. Offensively there are not too many wingers as good as him in this part of the world. There are not too many players who are as offensive as him either.

Last week, the Saracens man bit Northampton prop Alex Walker on his hand/arm. Anyone who chooses to bite someone in the course of a game. . . well you would have to question what type of person they are. It is a base and feral action .

Ashton received a 10-week ban for gouging Ulster centre Luke Marshall last season.

The ban was costly for Ashton as it deprived him of the chance of making a claim for a starting position in England's Six Nations challenge.

A 13-week ban this time... yeah comme ci , comme ca.

During the 2011 World Cup Ashton was involved in a number of unsavoury off-pitch incidents. The most notorious of these was the drunken dwarf-throwing episode in Queenstown.

Ashton's swallow-dive celebration would not have endeared him to many rugby supporters.

I don't know him at all but I do think he is a superior rugby player (going forward) but a thoroughly unlikeable person.

After the 2011 World Cup, Martin Johnson lost the England coaching job, and eventually Stuart Lancaster took over.


At that stage English rugby internationally was on the floor. The financial resources and the huge playing pool available to England ensured that they would recover, but the culture within their squad and the prevailing attitude would have to change.

My impression of Lancaster is that he is an honourable and principled man.

Charged with changing England's fortunes and their culture, he decided that there were players within the group who did not have the requisite grade of character - who did not fit into the team dynamic that he wanted and just gave off the wrong vibe to the greater rugby family.

Ashton was one of those players who Lancaster discarded. A prolific and proven try scorer but unfortunately he was made of the wrong stuff. Ashton and Lancaster had a fractious relationship and Lancaster rarely picked him even though Ashton had scored 19 tries in 39 Test matches.

Ashton did have defensive frailties, and quite often he would leave his wing unguarded while he went looking for the ball. He wouldn't and didn't learn, and that was it.

Primarily, though, he was kept off the side by Lancaster by the courage of his conviction and a sense of decency.

At pretty much the same time Dylan Hartley - whose rap sheet we are all familiar with and who also starred in Queenstown on the drunken night in question - was getting game-time with England.

Hartley had 54 weeks of suspensions behind him, but again he was a very good player.

In the 2015 Aviva Premiership semi-final, Hartley smashed his Saracens rival Jamie George in the head and got a paltry four-week suspension for it.

But the suspension ran into England's World Cup schedule and Lancaster had a decision to make. It would have been easier to include Hartley, as there was pressure from a lot of corners to do so.

Lancaster took the brave choice to leave Hartley out of the squad even though he was the best hooker available to him - at least there was still honour in the game.

England had a disaster at the World Cup, and tactically Lancaster had a very poor tournament. He was replaced by the hard-nosed and manically driven Eddie Jones.

Whatever it is about our inability in these islands to govern or lead our own, Jones - an outsider - took the gamble with Hartley and not only picked him as hooker but made him captain as well.

Chris Robshaw the redoubtable, virtuous and honourable, replaced by the rabble.

A poor lineout call was probably not the only reason.

Honour sinks where commerce long prevails. After their World Cup debacle, England had to be successful. Hartley brought an edge and kept his dark side in check, and the results were spectacular.

England won the Grand Slam, beat the Wallabies 3-0 in Australia, and now Hartley is Fleet Street's choice for captaining the Lions. It's galling.

Meanwhile, it is true what they say about nice guys.

Lancaster has been given the chance to reinvent himself in a high-end but struggling franchise.

He finished second four times in the Six Nations and got it badly wrong at the World Cup yet he is a man of substance and a deep thinker of the game.

He may rationalise too much as well but to succeed and recover himself, he must realise quickly what sort of a creature he is dealing with psychologically here - I mean Leinster.

Leinster's three successful coaches in the professional era have managed to press the right buttons.

Matt Williams, Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt are as different to each other as you possibly could be. Williams was an innovator, a thinker and a talker. Cheika was a b******* and a bully. Schmidt was absolutely driven, controlling and a brilliant organiser.


There haven't been too many Englishmen who have come this side of the pond and been successful. Brian Ashton, for example, was the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time.

Lancaster can do a good job if he understands what he is dealing with. It also remains to be seen what his role is. 'Senior coach' I suspect means that at this moment in time the only person above him is Leo Cullen.

Leinster are lacking in a lot of areas, no more so than without having an experienced and mature coach who knows what he is doing.

The niceties and protocols may take a month to get over - but they don't have the luxury of time. Lancaster seems to be a nice fella and the Leinster squad seem to be a bunch of nice fellas - but that situation can't pertain too much longer if they want trophies.

Leinster only perform when either bastards or controllers are in charge. A leaf from Machiavelli might be the way forward: "It is better to be feared than loved - if you cannot be both."

Honour and niceties need to be discarded!

Irish Independent

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