The long-term futures of England's head coach, Brian Ashton, and the former red rose captain Martin Johnson were left in limbo last night after an inconclusive meeting of the Rugby Football Union's management board.
The 14-man board in charge of the top end of the English game announced that it had accepted an interim report by Rob Andrew, the Rugby Football Union's élite rugby director. A statement said that the board "was unanimous in authorising him to continue the discussions currently under way to strengthen the England team structure through the recruitment of a team manager and an additional specialist coach.
"Recommendations on these appointments will be made to a Club England meeting in early April, who will then make final recommendations to the RFU management board, which will convene, as necessary, an additional meeting ahead of its scheduled meeting on the 30 April to consider these recommendations."
Nowhere were the names Brian Ashton or Martin Johnson mentioned. Andrew had always maintained that the review would not be complete in time for this meeting, so this further delay comes as no surprise.
Behind the scenes the indications are that among Andrew's recommendations is one that backs Ashton, 61, to remain in his job for the time being. The gap between this interim report and the final recommendations, as mentioned in the statement, appears designed to give Andrew time to formulate a diplomatic mission to try to come up with a management structure that will be acceptable to Ashton and the front-line coaches.
There were other items on the board's agenda, but this, the most crucial one, did not come up for discussion until early afternoon, because Andrew could not make the 9.30am start. He turned up at Twickenham around midday, having interrupted his holiday in Greece to fly back to London to present his review of England's performance in the Six Nations Championship, in which they finished second, their highest place since 2003.
It is widely believed that Andrew wants to install the 38-year-old Johnson as team manager, but no clue has been given as to what the remit of the job will be. Wild speculation has it that Johnson will be given responsibility for hiring and firing coaches, previously in Andrew's remit.
There is also a belief that Johnson would have a big say in the selection of squads and teams. Most important of all, it is thought that Ashton, the head coach who guided England to the final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, would be answerable directly to Johnson – previously Andrew has been his immediate line manager.
There is no doubt that Johnson, a colossus of the English game, was a natural and inspirational captain, for his club Leicester and the British and Irish Lions as well as of England, whom he led to 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph, having earlier that year led them to the Grand Slam – but those achievements were on the field. Off it, it is a very different game.
His detractors, and there are a few, point to the fact that Johnson has no coaching experience and he has never held a managerial role of any description, let alone one as elevated and important as this.
As for Ashton, his future now looks limited. He was told originally that he would have the final say on who should be appointed to this role, but it appears he has now been left high and dry by Andrew and the RFU's management board.
Ashton's preferred candidate was Phil de Glanville, but there has been no official mention of the former Bath and England captain taking up any role.Reuse content