The shape of England's campaign in the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, leading into their defence of the World Cup in September, will be determined today by the 13-man management board of the Rugby Football Union - ridiculed by some as the modern equivalent of Will Carling's "57 old farts".
They are expected to sanction Brian Ashton as head coach, a decision that would put the 60-year-old Lancastrian in the peculiar position of replacing his own protégé, Andy Robinson, on the bridge of a sinking ship that flirted dangerously with the seabed during last month's international series.
Ashton, a member of Sir Clive Woodward's coaching team until his abrupt departure for personal reasons in 2002, returned to England duty following Twickenham's "day of the long knives" last April. He accepted the role of attack strategist under Robinson, with whom he built a close coach-player relationship in the late 1980s before helping him launch a coaching career of his own. When Robinson was railroaded into resigning after losing three of the four November Tests, Ashton quickly emerged as an obvious successor.
All is not sweetness and light, however. It rarely is these days. Moves to recruit the former international No 8 Dean Richards to a powerful managerial position in double-quick time appear to have foundered. Richards is midway through a long-term deal as director of rugby at Harlequins, and as the London club may find themselves in a relegation scrap that would threaten their Premiership status for the second time in three years, they are in no mood to put national interests first by permitting talks to begin. The RFU may yet be forced to advertise the position, in the hope their man will make his own running by applying.
Rob Andrew, whose first 100 days as the hiring-and-firing elite director of rugby have been just a little on the challenging side, was scheduled to lay his recommendations before the board at a meeting at Twickenham this morning. Andrew has kept his cards pinned tight to his chest but he has recently spoken of appointing a head coach rather than a manager, at least in the first instance. Ashton is no manager; rather, he is the most imaginative attacking strategist produced by the European game since the great Pierre Villepreux of France, a man most effective in tracksuit and boots. By the same yardstick, Richards is no one's idea of a hands-on coach. Unless something unexpected occurs at today's meeting, the former will take charge for the foreseeable future.
Andrew explained his thinking to the RFU's Club England committee, a body boasting significantly more in the way of specialist rugby knowledge than the management board, almost a fortnight ago and received a large degree of support. He also has the backing of Martyn Thomas, the union's chairman. "Rob is supremely qualified," Thomas said yesterday. "I and the board have every confidence in his ability. He is a very sound man, not one to panic. I believe Rob is the right piece in the jigsaw, the man to put the coaching team together and drive elite rugby in the right direction."
But Thomas went on to stress that today's piece of business is the easy bit, the difficult bit being a restructuring of domestic rugby with a view to protecting and improving England's standing at the top end of the international game. "Rob's work is central to how the landscape of the game in England will change. That will happen in conjunction with the RFU, the clubs and the players, who will play a key part in the debate that will be entered into in earnest next month.
"Things have to change. Everything is on the table. It's a huge challenge, but one everyone in the game is at long last ready to tackle. For us, the process starts with the right appointment of a new head coach, followed by agreements that ease the burden on players, develop their skills and game understanding, and create the environment for both the professional clubs and the England teams to flourish on and off the pitch," Thomas said.Reuse content