England shambles: 'They have all got to be happy with the new structure'

RFU chief Baron lays down the law but new England post is not big enough for both Ashton and colossus Johnno
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The Independent Online

"It's not all doom and gloom," Francis Baron declared, during the stormiest meeting in Twickenham's history of briefings. Stormy it may have been but it was water off a chief executive's back, as befits a man who drives a Bentley with a personalised numberplate. Prior to that it was an Aston Martin, but he pranged the 007 version in a snowy lane in Sussex.

"England Under-18s and Under-20s have just won grand slams, we have a new agreement with the clubs, the academy is thriving and we have a lot of talent coming through. Rob has done a bloody good job," Baron said. "The elite rugby department is working. The only bit that is spluttering is the England senior team."

There's the rub which explains why the Rugby Football Union's elite rugby director, Rob Andrew, felt compelled to sign the colossus Martin Johnson as "team manager". An official announcement is expected next week.

The RFU have had it up to here with the public criticism of the clandestine hiring of Johnson and the marginalising of the head coach, Brian Ashton. Hence Baron's spirited defence of Andrew. Yes, he had sympathy for Ashton, but there was no defence as such.

Baron said: "It must have been a nightmare for Brian having to read all that stuff appearing in the press. I'm concerned about the coverage. We are a caring organisation. We can put an arm around him but we can't stop the hurt. We want closure on this issue."

For Baron, the bottom line, as with any chief exec, is money. Not everything in Twickenham's garden will be rosy until England are on top of the world and, given their resources, that is where they believe they belong.

The balance sheet is not nearly as healthy as it used to be and the thing that brings the cash in is a successful England. Television is the magnet, and what the RFU want to see on the screen is not an ashen Ashton but the World Cup-winning Johnson. It's all about image... and money.

Nobody will explain exactly what it is that Johnson is supposed to do, but the fact that he wants to be involved seems to be enough. Baron talked about England's "inconsistency", not from match to match but from "half to half". He obviously had Wales at Twickenham in mind.

That is why the "team structure needs strengthening". He thought a team manager should have been appointed before the Six Nations. Andrew did not attend the briefing but turned up later at a dinner at The Compleat Angler in Marlow, where he wriggled off the hook about the Johnno affair.

"What you should be writing about," he said, "are the ELVs". He was passionate about the Experimental Law Variations which are being promoted by the International Rugby Board and tested in the southern hemisphere. "If the changes are adopted they will destroy the game as we know it," Andrew said. "We will be left with something like rugby league."

And we don't want that, and nor do we want to talk about the destruction of the game. What we want to know is Johnson's role. On Thursday, back at HQ, there was the first meeting of the Professional Game Board, the joint body of the RFU and the clubs. Johnson is, or was, a representative of Premier Rugby Ltd (the clubs) but he did not attend, because he did not think it was appropriate. Everybody was there but Johnson, and the one thing they didn't talk about was Johnson joining the RFU.

Team manager? They will not give a job description. Ashton thought it could be a part-time position, but his take on events is very different to Andrew's.

"It will not be a coaching position," Baron said. "Rob will present a very carefully thought-out proposal. He's a very intelligent, very rational man and he's been working very hard to sort out these issues. I hope we will build on what we already have in terms of our coaching structure, not destroy it, but people will have to accept there will be new faces. Evolution is the way to go.

"A team manager can sometimes be the number one or number two. There is no standard model you can take off the shelf. If Fred Smith says he can't work with the existing coaches, that might colour the view of the management board. They've all got to be happy with the new structure. If somebody says they don't want to work with the new bloke then that's their call."

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