RugbyU: Ashton taken aback with England success | other | Hindustan Times
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RugbyU: Ashton taken aback with England success

other Updated: Oct 14, 2007 19:20 IST
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England coach Brian Ashton admitted Sunday his side's march to the World Cup final had taken even him by surprise.

The reigning champions are now just 80 minutes away from becoming the first team to mount a successful defence after Saturday's 14-9 semi-final win over hosts France.

But a month ago their previous visit to the Stade de France saw them thrashed 36-0 by South Africa in a Pool match - England's record World Cup loss - a defeat which led to fresh questions about their ability to reach the knockout phase, let alone get to the final.

"I'd be a liar if I said if you asked me five weeks ago we're going to get to the World Cup final. I would have had to think long and hard about that," said Ashton, who took charge in December when former coach Andy Robinson was forced out after a run of 13 defeats in 22 Tests during his time in charge.

Clive Woodward, England's World Cup-winning supremo four years ago became 'Sir Clive' not long afterwards.

Asked about the prospect of becoming 'Sir Brian', Ashton replied: "Whatever happens, I can't imagine that."

The 61-year-old former Bath and Ireland coach who said the South Africa defeat would be an "irrelevance" if the Springboks, who play Argentina in Sunday's second semi, made it through to next Saturday's final, was effectively hired by Rob Andrew, director of elite rugby at the Rugby Football Union (RFU).

"We've tried, I've tried over the last four or five weeks to say how much has been going on behind the scenes," former England flyhalf Andrew also told reporters at England's hotel here Sunday.

"Particularly on that Friday night (of the South Africa match) there was an over-reaction in some sections of the media.

"They've worked extremely hard and dealt with as much pressure as any English coaching team has ever been under," Andrew added in praise of Ashton and his backroom staff.

Andrew, who played in the England team beaten by Australia in the 1991 World Cup final at Twickenham, said the current side had been under the cosh from early on.

"They've already played four finals effectively. We started the knockout phase in the last 32, not the last 16."

England endured a huge slump in form after winning the World Cup and, heading into this edition, had won just 16 out of 40 Test matches since now retired captain Martin Johnson lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy in Sydney.

Yet tournament favourites New Zealand, who in the intervening four years dominated the Tri-Nations and thrashed the British and Irish Lions 3-0 in 2005, had a seemingly ideal build-up only to suffer a 20-18 quarter-final defeat against France - the All Blacks' earliest ever exit at a World Cup.

"England had a great four year campaign in 2003 and got over the line," said Andrew. "New Zealand had a great campaign leading into tournament but in the space of 80 minutes that went off the rails.

"You don't win it (the World Cup) in the first two or three weeks, you can only start winning it if you get out of the group. It's a two or three week pressure situation."

Andrew said that while the semi-final win may have revived fans' belief in the side he had always been confident England were better than their raw results had suggested.

"In the public's perception and the media's perception this may have put some faith back into the English game.

"But even before I was appointed, before Brian was appointed, I thought the English game wasn't in as poor health as the results were showing. There's enormous talent coming through and we've seen some of that at this tournament."

England have a concern over Josh Lewsey, who scored the only try of Saturday's match with just 78 seconds on the clock. The wing was due to have a scan on a hamstring injury later Sunday.