Ashton, Ford and Wells have edge after RFU's day of the long knives

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The Independent Online

Much to his horror on the morning of the long knives, Andy Robinson found himself wielding the blade. England's head coach, the one significant survivor of the Rugby Football Union's brutal post-Six Nations cull, was charged yesterday with the task of telling two of his closest allies - the defence technician Phil Larder and the kicking specialist Dave Alred - that their jobs had disappeared into the ether, and that Joe Lydon, the much-criticised backs coach, had been demoted to the national academy. It was, by a very long way, the most unpleasant few hours of his professional career.

What made the pain even more intense were suggestions, some of them in print, that he had saved his own skin by turning on his own. "Those aspersions are very unfair - grossly unfair," said Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the union's management board. "Andy is an honest man, a sincere man, and he speaks from the heart. He is immensely loyal, and is deeply upset by what has happened. What came across most clearly as we went through this long review process is the great confidence expressed in him by the England players. That was very important in terms of our deliberations."

Robinson will lead the world champions to Australia for this summer's Tests in Sydney and Melbourne, accompanied by what Francis Baron, the chief executive, described as "a leaner, meaner" senior back-room team of three: a forwards coach, an attacking coach and a defence coach. Baron confirmed that while these posts would be advertised, he expected appointments to be made within days. Barring an unforeseen hitch, Brian Ashton of Bath will be the new attacking strategist. John Wells, the former Leicester coach, will work with the pack, while Mike Ford of Saracens is favourite for the defence role.

In total, nine full-time RFU employees have either resigned or been sacked, including the performance director Chris Spice, who felt Robinson should have been held more accountable for the recent failures of the Test team and quit his post when he saw the tide of argument turning against him. "I have been frank and honest in my opinions throughout," he said yesterday, "and have for some time held the belief that a culture change was required in the England senior team. This could happen only through a change in leadership. The review process threw up a lot of evidence to support my views, but as this will not be acted upon, I think now is the time to stand by what I believe."

Spice's hand may have been forced anyway, for the union intends to incorporate the England operation into a beefed-up performance department, headed by a director of élite rugby - the most powerful single position ever sanctioned by the Twickenham grandees. The director will have the widest of briefs, overseeing the sports science department as well as the national academy and age-group teams. But it is the union's intention to grant him a major role with the Test side that alters the balance of power and means that Robinson's influence will eventually be diluted.

Baron said the search for the right man would be conducted globally, and that candidates would be in single figures. Inevitably, Sir Clive Woodward will be seen as an early front-runner. He has privately declared his interest in the role and has a strong supporter in Thomas to set against the many enemies he made in quitting as England coach in a blind fury 20 months ago.

But other names were quickly in circulation yesterday: Dean Richards and Rob Andrew from the high priesthood of English rugby; Eddie Jones, the former Wallaby coach currently working with Saracens; Warren Gatland, the New Zealander who performed such startling deeds with Wasps before returning to his native Waikato last year; and, most intriguingly, Nick Mallett, the remarkable South African polymath who made the Springboks the best team in the world in the late 1990s.

"I think this appointment will take months rather than weeks, simply because we are looking for someone with the breadth of knowledge and experience to sit on top of the entire élite operation," the chief executive said.

"While we intend to cut out all unnecessary expenditure - we have become lax in a number of areas since winning the World Cup in 2003 - and certainly intend to terminate all existing consultancy contracts, we will probably use a team of head-hunters.

"The person we eventually identify will almost certainly be under contract elsewhere, and we will need specialist help in securing his release from that contract. We are taking this extremely seriously."

Asked whether the RFU would rather see an Englishman in the job, as opposed to a southern hemisphere type, Baron admitted to a preference for such an outcome. "We're all cosmopolitan now, though, and if the outstanding candidate comes from the other side of the world, that's who we'll appoint."

Was this not eerily reminiscent of the Football Association's recruiting officers and their decision to offer the England job to a Brazilian, rather than one of their own? "I have to say I've been too busy to follow that story," he replied with a weary smile.

Candidates to head up the RFU performance team

SIR CLIVE WOODWARD The good knight wants it. Does the RFU want him?

DEAN RICHARDS The great bear already has supporters at Twickenham.

ROB ANDREW Well qualified, but has little respect for union authority.

NICK MALLETT A wonderful rugby intellect and top-class administrator, too.

WARREN GATLAND Track record second to none, and he knows the territory.

EDDIE JONES Super-sharp brain - would be the boldest choice.