Baron charm offensive hopes to persuade Ashton to stay

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The Independent Online

If Brian Ashton took the Rugby Football Union to the cleaners, an appropriate action considering the body has been dragged through the mud and back during the notorious Martin Johnson affair, few people would blame him. The RFU, however, are hoping that their former head coach will remain an employee.

Francis Baron, the chief executive at Twickenham who has become experienced at crisis management, (a players' strike led by Johnson and the dramatic departure of Sir Clive Woodward come to mind) will meet Ashton on Monday when he will hope to persuade the Lancastrian that the war of the roses is history.

Ashton had been under the impression that the choice of a team manager would be his - his personal assistant had been attempting an understudy role during the Six Nations - only to discover that Johnson was to be the all embracing new face of the Red Rose brigade.

When Johnson took over he said: "From the outset Brian made it clear he didn't want to be number two in the set up." It is still by no means clear whether Brian had any choice in the matter. Johnson's dialogue had been with John Wells, the England forwards coach and a former Leicester teammate. Ashton was not so much out of the loop as standing beneath a noose.

He has just moved house in Bath and he has the choice of returning to coach the National Academy, which is based in the city, or telling the RFU to stick it. Baron will serve tea, in the best china, and pot loads of sympathy when he meets Ashton and attempts to keep him on board. The line will be that Ashton still has an influential role to play in English rugby. The RFU, reeling from a barrage of bad publicity, wants to move on to any other business as quickly as possible.

One of Johnson's first tasks is to employ a backs coach - yes, Ashton used to be that man - and Jim Mallinder, amongst others, is supposed to be in the frame. Yesterday Mallinder, who has only been at Northampton for a season during which they have already reacquired a taste for the Guinness Premiership from National League One, said he had had no approach from either Johnson or the RFU. He was equally non-commital on whether Saints were in the market to sign Victor Matfield, the South African lock who had a big hand in frustrating England in the World cup final in Paris last year. Matfield's contract with Toulon expires at the end of the season.

Sale, Mallinder's former club, are considering an appeal against a 14 week ban imposed on their centre Lee Thomas. In a game against Bath he struck Shaun Berne who lost three teeth. The clubs meet again on Saturday in the semi-finals of the European Challenge Cup at the Rec. Thomas was found to be in breach of regulation 5.12 which deals with any conduct which is "prejudicial to the interests of the Union or the game." Over the Ashton affair, the RFU could answer a 5.12 charge.

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