Ashton set to accept demotion

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton appears set to accept his demotion from England head coach to a role with the National Academy.

Ashton was axed following the appointment of Martin Johnson as team manager this week and had been expected to leave the Rugby Football Union.

Speaking at Johnson's official unveiling at Twickenham today, RFU chief executive Francis Baron said: "I spoke to Brian yesterday and his advisors, and Brian has confirmed to me his interest in taking up the new position that we have offered him.

"I will be sitting down with Brian next week to finalise the details of the new position so that Brian can start work in his new role.

"I very much believe Brian will remain a part of the team.

"He has a massive amount still to offer England rugby."

Baron acknowledged the RFU had badly handled the transition between Ashton's tenure and the appointment of Johnson.

"We accept in some respects that the RFU could have handled the process better and lessons have been learned," he said.

"However, I do not accept that Brian has not been properly dealt with overall.

"Brian is a highly-valued employee of the RFU. He remains under contract with us, that contract caters for Brian to be switched to alternative roles within the RFU.

"We want Brian to stay as part of our elite rugby structure.

"We have offered him the alternative position of head coach of the National Academy. This is a considerably wider role than Brian previously held in the National Academy.

"It covers the Saxons, the under-20s and the under-18s.

"We believe Brian has an outstanding track record in developing young talent of the future.

"We believe that this role is ideally suited to Brian's special skill set."

Baron also revealed he would investigate unauthorised media briefings by RFU employees.

"This is not helpful and I am currently looking into this," he said.

"If necessary, appropriate action will be taken."

Rob Andrew, the RFU's director of elite rugby, said Ashton had accepted the changes and had no intention of taking legal action against the governing body.

Andrew said: "It has been a very difficult situation for him and me personally and professionally.

"We are working closely with Brian and we spoke this morning. He is very keen to continue work with the RFU and over the next few days and weeks we hope to sort that out.

"He did also say, contrary to reports, he will not be suing the RFU over this issue."

Looking forward, Andrew believes the RFU have found the right man to lead England back to the top of the world game.

Johnson has no coaching experience but carries enormous gravitas as the captain of the World Cup-winning side of 2003.

Andrew added: "I am delighted Martin is sat next to us here. This is a long-term appointment for English rugby.

"It has not been the easiest couple of weeks but it is the start of a new era."

Johnson admitted he felt sorry for Ashton but was looking forward to his new challenge.

He said: "It has been very difficult and I have not felt comfortable with it at times.

"I am sure it has been a lot worse for Brian and I have sympathy for him. I intend to speak to him."

He added: "It is tremendously exciting time for English rugby.

"I come into this with my eyes open. I am fully aware of perceptions of me as a player and, since I retired, people have been asking when am I going to come back.

"It's been good to have a couple of years out to refresh the enthusiasm and now it is a hugely exciting time to be involved.

"There is every possibility we can be beating most teams around the world and I am delighted to be in the job and I thoroughly understand the responsibilities.

"It is a fact I have no coaching experience but I have got a lot of experience in rugby union in the last 16 years.

"This game is always about players - it is not about the ego of coaches, that sometimes gets overplayed.

"It is about creating the environment where these guys can thrive and play. It is about about team culture and I think I can be part of that."

Andrew admitted Johnson's role was initially conceived as a secondary position to that of head coach but grew into a much wider brief.

He said: "It came about from the World Cup review. We said we would look at the role of team manager.

"Brian had a clear view of what the role should be, effectively a number two reporting to the coach.

"Over the last two or three months, we have spoken to six people about the role of team manager and then spoke to Martin after the Six Nations.

"Once we started discussing the role of team manager for Martin, it became clear what the role should be. It became clear it was a number one role and we wanted Martin in that role."

Andrew insisted his professional relationship with Ashton was "still intact" despite what he described as difficult discussions and negotiations.

"I was in touch with Brian all the way through this process," he said.

"He knew when I was meeting Martin.

"There came a point where the role of team manager as perceived by Brian was beginning to change but until negotiations of a very sensitive nature were finalised, it was very difficult to get to this outcome.

"It's been a very uncomfortable two of three weeks for everybody."

Baron insisted the appointment of Johnson was not a gamble and backed him to grow into his new role.

"Nothing is risk-free in life," Baron said.

"I don't believe this is a gamble at all. It's the right decision.

"In the next year to 18 months, you'll find Martin will grow into all aspects of the job."

On the issue of how much financial clout Johnson will be given, Baron added: "The current budget for the England team is 76 per cent higher than it was under (Sir) Clive Woodward.

"We have never, ever lost matches or failed in tournaments through lack of budget.

"Martin will have the budget he needs to deliver what he needs to do to take England back to the top."

Johnson revealed his primary aim was to foster a strong team spirit and get England playing more consistently well.

"It's not rocket science. It's creating the team spirit that's the key thing," he said.

"That gets them through the tough games."

He also refused to promise to deliver the 2011 World Cup, saying: "World Cups have become bigger and bigger in this game. They're huge events.

"I always thought as a player it's about the little things you do every day.

"If you start looking too far ahead, what happens now can get overlooked.

"Of course, you have to plan where you want to be in 2011 but things can change."