Concerns growing over RFU's isolation of Ashton

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton has tentative plans to name his England squad for this summer's two-Test trip to New Zealand on 10 May. Sadly for the head coach, not to mention those players who might appreciate a little continuity after coming through the firestorms of a World Cup and a Six Nations Championship with a pair of second-place finishes to their names, there is no guarantee the party will still be his to pick at that juncture, thanks to the Rugby Football Union's apparent determination to hound the 61-year-old Lancastrian out of his job.

This afternoon, the three principal movers and shakers at Twickenham – the chairman Martyn Thomas, the chief executive, Francis Baron, and the director of elite rugby, Rob Andrew – are scheduled to hold a briefing into the major RFU issues of the day. It will be fascinating to see how many of them turn up, given the level of criticism generated by their profoundly cynical treatment of Ashton. It will also be interesting to see if they attempt to rule this most pressing of subjects out of bounds, on the grounds that negotiations with the 2003 World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson, the man they want to appoint as team manager over Ashton's head, have yet to be concluded. If they try to pull that one, they will be laughed clean out of south-west London.

The coach has been kept out of the loop on developments relating to Johnson. He has been granted one brief audience with Baron, but contact with Andrew, his immediate boss, has been minimal in the extreme. In business, they call it "mushroom management": the victim is kept in the dark and covered with you-know-what.

Growing numbers of high-profile figures in the professional game are expressing concern over the way Ashton is being isolated. Dean Richards, the director of rugby at Harlequins and the original target of some Twickenhamites when the team manager role was first discussed in 2006, was quoted by the weekly Rugby Times magazine as saying: "There are more leaks coming out of the RFU than any other company in Britain at this moment in time, which is disgraceful. You have to feel sympathy for Brian because he's taken England to the final of a World Cup, come second in the Six Nations and he's being criticised."

Some of Ashton's supporters are pressing hard for Andrew to come up with an arrangement that might satisfy both the coach and the supposed manager designate, especially as Johnson is considered unlikely to make the trip to New Zealand because of his wife's pregnancy. It is a tall order. Because of the RFU's mishandling of the affair, Ashton is far from certain that he would find such a solution acceptable, or even desirable.

Whoever leads the squad into All Black territory will have a slightly better chance of returning home in one piece thanks to the latest injury news from down south. A week after the brilliant outside-half Daniel Carter was declared doubtful for the series, the Fijian-born wing Joe Rokocoko was ruled out after undergoing surgery on a damaged wrist. His absence will certainly have an effect. With Doug Howlett playing his rugby in Ireland and Rico Gear contracted to Worcester, the only member left of the finest wing quartet ever produced by a single nation is Sitiveni Sivivatu.

Northampton, breathlessly active in the transfer market, yesterday confirmed the signing of the 23-year-old scrum-half Lee Dickson from Newcastle. Dickson, recently called into the England training squad, will contest the No 9 shirt with the highly-rated Ben Foden, who is joining from Sale.

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