Ashton joins Bath again in blow to RFU vision

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The Independent Online

He is now serving his notice as manager of the Rugby Football Union's national academy - Jim Mallinder, the former Sale coach, will take over the job on an interim basis - and has agreed to replace the Australian John Connolly at the Recreation Ground from 1 January.

Ashton lives in Colerne, a few miles outside Bath, and has been courted by senior club officials for some months. "Congratulations must go to Bob Calleja [the chief executive] for patiently pursuing and finally securing such a high-profile and respected figure," said the Bath chairman and principal investor, Andrew Brownsword.

Connolly, who plans to return to Queensland later this month, predicted the brightest of futures for the West Countrymen.

Quite how the RFU regard the loss of the focal point of their cherished academy project is an interesting question. The Twickenham community made all the right noises yesterday - "Brian is without doubt an outstanding coach who inspires players and fellow coaches alike with his vision, drive and inspirational leadership on and off the pitch," said the performance director, Chris Spice - but in view of the relations between the union and its Premiership clubs, which are cool to the point of freezing, a high-profile move from the former camp to the latter will be seen by many as a political blow to the establishment.

After an initial seven-year stint at Bath, during which the club dominated the domestic game and repeatedly raised the bar in all disciplines, Ashton coached Ireland before joining the England set-up under Sir Clive Woodward. He relinquished that role for personal reasons in 2002, but his legacy was obvious to all as the red rose army strung together a double-figure run of successes against the three southern hemisphere superpowers and went on to win the World Cup.

Wales have promoted the Cardiff Blues scrum-half Michael Phillips to their starting line-up for the match with the touring All Blacks at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday. Phillips, who would have been worth his weight in gold during last summer's Lions series, has beaten his rival from Newport-Gwent Dragons, Gareth Cooper, to the position vacated by the injured Dwayne Peel. The Red Dragonhood, beset by all manner of problems with senior personnel, have named Kevin Morgan on the right wing, Mark Taylor and Ceri Sweeney in the centre, Duncan Jones at loose-head prop and Jonathan Thomas on the blind-side flank.

The New Zealanders, meanwhile, will award first caps to the 23-year-old Wellington prop Neemia Tialata and the 26-year-old flanker Chris Masoe, who performed so resourcefully for Taranaki against the Lions in New Plymouth last June. Anton Oliver, the most experienced hooker in the party, will also start ahead of Keven Mealamu.

Wales v New Zealand (Millenium Stadium, Saturday)

Wales: G Thomas (Toulouse, capt); K Morgan (Newport-Gwent Dragons), M Taylor (Sale), C Sweeney (Dragons), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont Auvergne), M Phillips (Cardiff Blues); D Jones (Ospreys), M Davies (Gloucester), A Jones (Ospreys), B Cockbain (Ospreys), R Sidoli (Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys), C Charvis (Newcastle), M Owen (Dragons). Replacements: R Thomas (Blues), C Horsman (Worcester), L Charteris (Dragons), R Sowden-Taylor (Blues), G Cooper (Dragons), N Robinson (Blues), L Byrne (Llanelli Scarlets).

New Zealand: M Muliaina; R Gear, C Smith, T Umaga (capt), J Rokocoko; D Carter, B Kelleher; N Tialata, A Oliver, C Hayman, C Jack, J Ryan, J Collins, C Masoe, R So'oialo. Replacements: A Hore, T Woodcock, A Macdonald, R McCaw, J Cowan, M Nonu, L MacDonald.