England in the dock over 'underhand' approach for Smith

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The Independent Online

The sorry tale of Brian Ashton and the Rugby Football Union is poised for another twist when Martin Johnson completes the recruitment of Brian Smith as England's new backs coach.

Commensurate with the RFU's handling of the whole sorry affair, the appointment of Smith has been anything but straightforward. His employers, London Irish, where he was the director of rugby, are dismayed at what they describe as England's "underhand" approach to Smith, who last season led the club to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup.

Smith, an Australian who studied at and played for Oxford University, has another year on his contract with the Irish, who want the RFU to pay compensation in the region of £150,000. That is one issue between the two bodies, and another is the behaviour of the RFU.

Rob Andrew, England's elite director of rugby, made an "unofficial" approach to Smith which the club claims is in breach of a code of conduct. The job was then advertised on the RFU's website and Smith applied. After an interview, he was offered the post and accepted it and the club says this contravenes the terms of his contract.

A few months ago, Ashton, who was then head coach, had been assured by Andrew that he could appoint his own team manager only to discover that Johnson had been signed as master and commander of all he surveyed.

"I'm aware of the perception of what I'm expected to bring to the job but ultimately it comes down to how well we play on the pitch," Johnson said last week after naming his first elite squad. "That is what I'll be judged on. I'm here to make this team better and to improve each player."

Some of the frontline players, including Ben Kay, who partnered Johnson when England won the World Cup in Australia in 2003, Mike Tindall, Joe Worsley, Michael Lipman and David Strettle, have been demoted to the Saxons squad on the evidence of England's dire tour to New Zealand, where the visitors finished a poor second in both of the Tests. "The players on that trip now know what it is like to play top-level Test rugby," said Johnson. "It's not going to get any more difficult for those guys."

Charlie Hodgson, the only specialist stand-off on that trip after Danny Cipriani shattered an ankle, is the biggest casualty, failing to make either the elite or Saxons squads, which between them contain 64 players.

Cipriani, who is not expected to recover in time for England's autumn Tests at Twickenham against the Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, is included in the Saxons.

Jonny Wilkinson, who wisely missed the All Blacks tour as he recovered from a shoulder operation, is the only out-and-out outside half in the elite squad, although Shane Geraghty – Smith knows all about him – has played there for London Irish.

Johnson has named four uncapped players, the Wasps centre Riki Flutey, the Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley, the London Irish lock Nick Kennedy and the Leicester back-rower Jordan Crane. Flutey and Hartley are New Zealanders who qualify for England on grounds of a three-year residency.

There is a belated recall for Josh Lewsey (pictured left) who was mysteriously ignored after the last World Cup. Lewsey, who was never quite sure whether England would play him at fullback or wing, got the good news just before leaving for Bali, where he is honeymooning with his wife Vanessa.

England's demise in New Zealand – Johnson watched it from his home in Leicester while Andrew lurched from one crisis to another – was exacerbated by the episode surrounding the "Auckland Four", who were accused of "serious sexual assault". It is the subject of an inquiry by the RFU's disciplinary officer, his honour judge Jeff Blackett. The players will be signing a new code of conduct and Johnson said the issue would be "top of the agenda" when they meet for a five-day training camp in August.