Ashton has to be given free hand to lead England

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The Independent Online

Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at Twickenham, has spent the last two months poking around in the entrails of England's recent World Cup campaign: dark and lonely work to be sure, but someone had to do it. Today, he will announce his findings to the Rugby Football Union's management board, and if he recommends someone other than Brian Ashton as head coach, it will be both a surprise of flabbergasting proportions and an affront to common sense.

Ashton, the incumbent, had a rough ride in the early stages of the tournament in France he was at odds with his specialist coaches on important matters of strategy, some of his senior players were performing like sacks of ordure, he did not have an outside-half to his name ahead of the first match against the Springboks and suffered an even rougher one after it when Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt sold their stab-and-tell stories to the Sunday prints. (An interesting take on loyalty, it must be said, from men who owed their World Cup places to the 61-year-old Lancastrian).

Yet when all is said and done, Ashton guided an unexceptional England side to the final. "If that had happened in our game, he would have been hailed as a superhero," one former football manager of note remarked last week.

Having experienced the pressurised frenzy of international rugby at the very top end and seen his own frailties exposed all coaches have them, Sir Clive Woodward included Ashton wants to battle on. What is more, he has the overwhelming support of his players. He believes he will be a better operator next year than he was this, not least because a generation of brilliant young individuals he nurtured during his spell as national academy manager are beginning to challenge for Test consideration, and he considers that his chances of moving English rugby to a new level are at their greatest now, at the start of a World Cup cycle.

As one of rugby's great freethinkers, Ashton must be given the authority to run it his way. Some influential RFU figures are pushing for the appointment of Dean Richards, the Harlequins director of rugby, in a team manager's role, but his way is not Ashton's way. Besides, both men would want the final say on selection. Will Andrew himself take on a more active role in red-rose affairs? Again, there is support for this option within the RFU. But Andrew might legitimately ask himself whether he wants to be a hostage to fortune when he is earning a fortune already.

Today's meeting could fudge the managerial issue by leaving a decision until after the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, or even the two-Test trip to New Zealand in June. The thing that cannot be fudged is the make-up of Ashton's coaching team.

The prospect of Shaun Edwards, the highly regarded Wasps coach, joining his former colleague Warren Gatland in Wales has alarmed a number of people close to the England set-up and Andrew has been strongly urged to create a post for the former Great Britain rugby league maestro, possibly at the expense of the current defence specialist Mike Ford. Ashton and Edwards would be a good fit, given the former's deep love of the 13-a-side code and the latter's mastery of it.

In Scotland, Frank Hadden, a resourceful coach who took the national team into the last eight of the World Cup, has signed a new rolling contract and will definitely stay in the post until November next year.

"Frank has presided over a tremendous turnaround in the fortunes of the national team," said Gordon McKie, the chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union. "We are confident the platform for future success has been well and truly established."

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