Bath to drive hard bargain if Ashton leaves for England

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The Independent Online

Bath, who play Biarritz in this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-final, may lose their entire senior coaching team before the start of next season. Michael Foley, the forwards specialist, has already signed a deal to work at Test level with his native Australia and is in his last month of employment at the Recreation Ground; Richard Graham, another assistant coach, is being linked ever more strongly with a move to Saracens; and Brian Ashton, the West Country club's revered director of rugby, is expected to receive an approach from England any day now.

The locals have come to terms with Foley's departure, which was widely predicted the moment John Connolly, his long-time mentor, succeeded Eddie Jones as Wallaby top dog. They will just about accept losing Graham, the lowest-profile member of the back-room trio. But Ashton is a different kettle of coach entirely. Highly regarded by friend and foe alike, he is less than four months into a new contract at the Rec, where he resurfaced in January after a nine-year absence from club rugby.

A number of players, not least the England midfielder Olly Barkley, extended their own contracts primarily on the strength of Ashton's presence at the club. Andrew Brownsword, the Bath chairman and principle investor, will drive a very hard bargain if Ashton is lured back to Twickenham - far harder than that in respect of Sir Clive Woodward, who left the Rec for England in 1997. Bath were said at the time to have received compensation of £100,000 from the Rugby Football Union.

Three Bath players - the prop David Flatman, the outside-half Chris Malone and the exciting young Samoan centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu - are struggling for fitness ahead of Saturday's meeting with the French champions in San Sebastian. Ashton is not holding his breath on account of any of them, although he is short of cover in both the propping and the midfield departments. Matt Stevens, the England tight head, is out after surgery on a shoulder injury; Salesi Finau, the Tongan back, suffered a leg injury during last weekend's Premiership victory over Bristol and may not be in prime condition for the trip.

There was some good news for the Recreation Grounders, however. In their final outing before the big day, Biarritz were beaten 36-22 at Bourgoin - a side Bath beat twice in the Heineken Cup pool stage.