England to slam door on failing back room

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It has been a long season's journey into night for the England back-room team. Today, the equally tortuous inquest into the world champions' third successive failure at Six Nations Championship level will reach its conclusion when the Rugby Football Union's management board convene their hanging court at Twickenham. Andy Robinson, the head coach, is confidently expected to side-step the scaffold, but at least one - and probably more - of his closest colleagues could be swinging in the wind by the time proceedings are concluded.

The board will consider recommendations put forward by the Club England committee, who have been meeting under the chairmanship of the former international centre John Spencer in the weeks since the last Six Nations defeat by Ireland in mid-March. The most urgent of these concerns the removal of the current backs coach, Joe Lydon, and the immediate recruitment of Brian Ashton, perhaps the most respected attacking strategist of his generation, as Robinson's senior ally.

The fact that senior RFU figures want Ashton now, while he is under contract at Bath, is embarrassing in the extreme. Back in December, when he was running the national academy and therefore on the Twickenham payroll, they could have signed him without fear of handing over a six-figure sum in compensation.

Assuming Ashton is granted permission to leave the Recreation Ground - and Andrew Brownsword, Bath's chairman and financier-in-chief, is strongly rumoured to be happy with the proposed financial arrangements - England's chances of retaining the Webb Ellis Trophy in France next year will be strengthened enormously.

The champions have a pack capable of scaring the pants off the major southern hemisphere contenders. If Ashton succeeds in maximising the potential of Mathew Tait, the Newcastle centre, and Tom Varndell, the Leicester wing, over the coming 16 months, the holders could yet have a say in the destination of the title.

Lydon is not alone in feeling the heat. The defence coach, Phil Larder, is considered vulnerable - there is a growing mood to fast-track Mike Ford of Saracens into the England set-up - as is the kicking specialist Dave Alred, the only member of the current set-up with a full 10 years in the job.

However, it is not clear whether the management board will sanction full-time replacements across the board. One of the discussed themes has been the need to cut coaching numbers, thus limiting the cacophony of advice, some contradictory, that often surrounds the players in the build-up to important matches.

One of the more confusing aspects of the talks has been the move to involve John Wells, the former Leicester head coach. Wells, currently earning a pressure-free living at the top end of the national academy, is regarded as a forwards specialist, which just happens to be Robinson's acknowledged area of expertise. Quite how easily the two men might occupy the same training field is a moot point, especially as Robinson is a tracksuited enthusiast with little time for the white-collar side of the job.

Club England committee members have also been discussing the future of the Twickenham performance department, currently under the directorship of Chris Spice. Last month, it was widely anticipated it would be beefed up; indeed, there was a fast-rolling bandwagon in support of Sir Clive Woodward returning to Twickenham as an all-powerful performance supremo. Woodward still has one or two influential friends at the RFU, despite the vindictive nature of his departure in 2004.

For all that, there was no widespread enthusiasm for his early return, and although the performance department, boasting a staff almost 80-strong, is not thought to be providing value for money, some Club England members are reluctant to embark on root-and-branch restructuring this close to a World Cup.

The future of this part of the Twickenham operation will be decided over the next year, rather than the next few days, so the uncertainty will run and run. If only Ben Cohen had not fumbled that simple try-scoring pass on Calcutta Cup day...

Coaches the RFU may order off the road

ANDY ROBINSON, HEAD COACH

The former Bath flanker's record since succeeding Sir Clive Woodward as top dog is unspectacular rather than calamitous - eight wins from 16 Tests, including victories over South Africa and Australia. His Six Nations performance is a problem, though: a 40 per cent success rate, including three-match losing runs in each of the last two seasons.

PHIL LARDER, ASSISTANT COACH

The 61-year-old defence strategist is the most influential of Robinson's inner circle. Larder is still counted among the more knowledgeable specialists in the business, but is no longer in a class of his own, thanks to strides made by fellow refugees from rugby league, Mike Ford and Shaun Edwards.

DAVE ALRED, ASSISTANT COACH

Alred is the longest-serving member of the coaching cadre, having worked under Jack Rowell at the 1995 World Cup. As a kicking technician, he is viewed by many - not least Jonny Wilkinson - as the original and best. Detractors accuse him of encroaching on other coaches' areas of expertise.

JOE LYDON, ASSISTANT COACH

Recruited by Woodward two years ago as a full-time backs tactician, Lydon had little experience of senior 15-a-side coaching. England's impotent displays in the last three Six Nations games left him with a bull's-eye in the middle of his chest, and the arrows have been flying ever since.

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