Time for Ashton's gag to be taken off

 

Nobody has produced the definitive reasons why Brian Ashton resigned as Ireland's coach, because Ashton has not given them. He holds the key and consequently the answers to crucial questions. Unless those questions are answered we will continue to get the speculation, supposition, and accusation we have seen over the last 12 days.

In the current climate, I would now call on the IRFU to free Ashton from the confidentiality clause in his contract. Let us have everything out in the open. Let the truth be told. Only Ashton can do that. I can think of no better service that could be rendered to Irish rugby. If Ashton is given the liberty to speak and refuses to do so, then at least the accusation that the IRFU wishes to keep him silent cannot again be made to stick.

This afternoon, in Paris, Warren Gatland will be in charge of the Ireland side for the first time. He could not have a more intimidating beginning. If events follow the expected course, then France will not alone win, but will do so in a very comprehensive manner. The talk and the written comments firmly centre on the probability that Ireland will be comprehensively thrashed by a record margin.

Let us fervently hope that the pessimistic forecasts do not come to fruition. Let us hope that the Ireland players can find and display the bravery, fortitude and resolution to honour the jersey. If defeat is the outcome, and even the most optimistic must be prepared for that, we must hope that Ireland can at least give France a contest.

These are trying times for rugby, especially difficult for Ireland, Wales and Scotland. No one who really cares for the game can have taken any satisfaction from the results at Twickenham and Edinburgh a fortnight ago when Wales conceded 60 points to England - a total without precedent in the history of the championship - and Scotland conceded 51 points to France. The coach to that Scotland side was Jim Telfer, one of the most experienced and astute in the game. His right-hand man was Ian McGeechan, whose achievements and reputation are recognised world-wide.

Do the Scottish Rugby Union and the Welsh Rugby Union bear direct responsibility and culpability for those defeats? Are Telfer, McGeechan and the Welsh coach Kevin Bowring coaches imprisoned by their rugby unions? Let us remember, too, that the incumbent Scotland coach Richie Dixon was dismissed just a matter of three weeks before the Murayfield debacle. Should, in the prevailing circumstances, the members of the Scottish Rugby Union and the Welsh Rugby Union resign en bloc? Are they a collection of bumbling, inefficient men, rooted in a mire of conservative thinking and decisions? The results that Scotland and Wales have had over the last few years are as bad, and in some cases, worse than those endured by Ireland. Do highly-paid, full-time professional players bear any blame or responsibility for substandard performances? What about collective responsibility?

The vast majority of the players in the Irish, Welsh and Scottish teams play their rugby in England. Were we not told that England was the best base for our players. This would be the place where their performances, level of fitness, awareness and tactical appreciation would improve out of recognition. There were those of us who had doubts about that. Suffice to say that when those opinions were expressed, they were said to be the attitude of ultra-conservative thinking.

It has been said that a lot of players would not have gone to England if the IRFU had moved quickly enough. Well, the contracts issue is certainly one that the IRFU did not by any means handle correctly in every respect. For instance, it was not initially handled well in relation to provincial contracts. But that is far too simplistic an explanation. Furthermore, that issue has now been addressed. Better late than not at all. But with the increased revenue from the Five Nations Championship sponsors and the big increase in revenue from television, there is now much more financial scope.

Let us go back prior to the start of last season. Very good international contracts were offered as an incentive to players to stay at home. Basic money of £35,000 plus a car was on offer. In addition, there were match fees of £1,000 a game and a £3,000 win bonus for each match. The IRFU asked the players not to go to England until they had the opportunity to discuss the implications of such a move. Not one player took advantage of that offer.

At that time I spoke to nine players before they went to England. I will not shelter behind anonymity. They were Victor Costello, David Corkery, Darragh O'Mahony, Paul Burke, Richard and Paul Wallace, Paddy Johns, Jeremy Davidson and Keith Wood. In every instance those players told me that money was not their primary motivation. They felt the demands of international rugby were such that they needed to play full-time. They also felt that by going to England they would improve considerably and benefit from their involvement in the English League. They felt they wanted the challenge. I did not then, nor do I now, doubt the sincerity of their views. Nor would I for a moment criticise them for their decisions - they were free agents. Some of them gave up good jobs to go and play full-time and so took that risk.

That many players did not find the English League, or their new way of life, the fertile ground they had hoped, has since become blatantly obvious. Eddie Halvey had experienced the downside previously and returned home. Costello, a decent young man in every respect, made the return trip during the season. To return to Scotland and Wales, over the last three years their coaches have come and gone, even to a more pronounced degree than has been the case here. Let us remember those facts in the current situation, as calls go up for the resignation of the IRFU committee en bloc. Let us examine in every respect where culpability lies for the current performances of the national team. Realistically, would the resignation of the whole IRFU committee solve the problems of the Ireland side? Who or what would replace them in the short or indeed the long-term? Would the resignations coincide with a rapid improvement in Ireland's performances? Right now there is a perception and that the IRFU is not running the game efficiently. That is scarcely surprising bearing in mind the torrent of adverse publicity the union has received in recent times and more especially since Ashton's resignation. Is that perception based on Ireland's poor results at senior level and Ashton's resignation as coach?

How are the members of the IRFU committee appointed and what is the structure of the union committee? Those are issues I will address next week. In the interim, it is time for Ashton to speak and let the consequences fall where they will. This is one issue on which the IRFU just cannot afford to drag their heels, not least in the best interests of the many decent men on it and the game in Ireland.