Andrew absence casts doubt on future of England coach Ashton

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The Independent Online

Rob Andrew's big day – the day on which he was scheduled to answer a thousand questions about the pursuit of the 2003 World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson as England's new team manager, about the future of the current head coach, Brian Ashton, about the despicable treatment of Ashton since the end of the Six Nations Championship in mid-March – duly went ahead at Twickenham yesterday. Embarrassingly for the Rugby Football Union, it went ahead without Rob Andrew.

The elite rugby director was said to be in the middle of important discussions on the "team manager issue" and was therefore unavoidably detained. Discussions with whom? Johnson, by any chance? Jake White? Shaun Edwards? The Dalai Lama? Donald Duck? The poor old RFU could not, and would not, let on. Top secret, you know. Highly sensitive and absolutely not for public consumption.

Andrew was not short of mentions in dispatches, however. Two of his colleagues on the union's management board, the chairman, Martyn Thomas, and the chief executive, Francis Baron, assured their audience that the "Johnson affair" was the elite rugby director's idea from top to bottom; that they had not ordered him to chase the great lock forward from Leicester, but had simply urged him to get on with whatever it was he wanted to do; that he had given them his assurance that Ashton had been kept fully informed of events. If only Rob was here, you could ask him, they said. Except he was not.

If he had been, it would have been fascinating to learn how three chats with Ashton since 16 March, two of them extremely brief and far from illuminating, amounted to a full and frank disclosure of recent business. Baron is now in possession of a manager's job description arising from Andrew's various discussions – a job description that is believed to encroach heavily on Ashton's responsibilities – but the coach does not have the faintest idea of its contents, even though he was publicly assured by Andrew last December that he would be granted a manager of his own choosing.

By way of adding insult to injury, Ashton is equally bamboozled by the impending arrival of a "specialist attack coach", ostensibly to help lift the load from his shoulders. As this is Ashton's precise area of expertise, he will be uncomfortably aware of how Andy Robinson, his predecessor, was similarly "helped". A forwards coach of world renown, Robinson gave up control of this part of the operation in a reshuffle after the 2006 Six Nations. Seven months later, he was out of a job.

Neither Baron nor Thomas would discuss Johnson's candidacy for the managerial position, except to say that they expected any new appointment to be ratified by the end of next week. "Rob will present a very carefully thought-out proposal," Baron said. "He's a very intelligent, very rational man and he's been working very hard to sort out these issues. My wish is that we build on what we already have in terms of our coaching structure, not destroy it, but people will have to accept that there will be new faces in it."

None of this can have reassured Ashton, who, lest we forget, took England to a second successive World Cup final in October before delivering the best Six Nations finish since Clive Woodward's side won the Grand Slam in 2003. He might have been heartened by Thomas' assertion that "this isn't about sacking people", but as Thomas then embarked on a one-man devaluation of the recent Six Nations campaign – "The Irish and French teams we beat weren't that great and Wales can thank us for giving them a second Slam in three years," he said, caustically – the coach is now aware he has precious little support from that quarter.

Baron, who appears much keener to keep Ashton involved, said he did not expect the new team manager to start work until July, when the new agreement between the RFU and the Premiership clubs guaranteeing greater access to international players finally kicks in. This might suit Johnson, whose wife is expecting a second child.

It might also leave Ashton wondering whether he might find himself taking a tired squad to New Zealand in June, suffering a pair of beatings in Auckland and Christchurch and then flying home to face the music in the shape of his annual appraisal. It's a cruel world out there. And a cynical one, too.