Johnson given first taste of muddy world of RFU politics

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The Rugby Football Union, roundly condemned for its treatment of Brian Ashton in stripping him of his position as England head coach, attempted the near impossible feat of squeezing the toothpaste back into the tube yesterday by claiming that Ashton effectively talked his way out of a job by refusing to work under Martin Johnson, the World Cup-winning captain and newly appointed team manager. This must have come as headline news to Ashton. There again, everything has been news – bad news, scarcely believable news – to him since his team ran rings round Ireland in the Six Nations Championship last month.

He will have been equally interested in the opinion of the RFU chief executive, Francis Baron, who in his customary bullish manner said he "did not accept that Brian had not been dealt with in a proper fashion", and in a comment from Rob Andrew, his immediate boss, to the effect that contrary to popular belief, Ashton had been kept fully informed of the move to bring in Johnson over his head. Interested, and flabbergasted.

As for Johnson's startling admission that he had spoken to John Wells, one of Ashton's colleagues on the coaching team for last year's World Cup and this year's Six Nations, during the so-called "process" – well, that may be the most intriguing snippet of all. Ashton, Wells and the defence coach, Mike Ford, held a selection meeting ahead of this summer's tour of New Zealand four days before the denouement.

If Baron and Andrew, the elite rugby director, were intent on pouring some cold spring water into the lukewarm murk of the Twickenham swamp, they failed. There was no clarity, no clear and concise explanation of how Ashton's tenure – one in which England reached a second successive World Cup final and achieved a best Six Nations finish in five years – ended so miserably for him and so embarrassingly for them.

Andrew, left to fight his own corner by those members of the union's management board who were briefing against the head coach before the match with Ireland and continued briefing against him after it, suggested it had been "pretty good going to get from where we were to where we are in a couple of weeks". Baron begged to differ. "We could have handled the process better," he said. "It took too long, and the lessons have been learnt."

The way Andrew now tells it, discussions with Johnson persuaded him that the manager should be the "No 1" position, rather than a role in which the chosen individual would report to Ashton. As Ashton had expressed discomfort with this arrangement – and why wouldn't he have had a problem, having been publicly assured a few weeks previously that he would have a manager of his own choosing? – it was decided that the head coach should go. Whether or not Ashton was directly asked whether he was willing to work under Johnson remains the mootest of moot points.

"It was a very difficult situation for both Brian and myself, both personally and professionally," Andrew said. "It hasn't been the easiest of periods for Martin, either. I told Brian of my plans to speak to Martin, and it was after we held a second meeting, where the serious discussion started, that the difficulties surrounding Brian's position began to arise. Unfortunately, too much of this was played out in the full glare of the media. But I'm comfortable with how I've gone about this and I'm confident that my professional relationship with Brian remains intact."

Ashton is now "considering his position", to use the time-honoured phrase. He has been offered a return to the national academy, which he set up in 2002 and ran superbly for three years, with the added responsibility of overseeing the second-string England Saxons. The signs are that he will accept if the job description suits him and the financial package is satisfactory: he will be 62 in September, and although experts in employment law say he has a cast-iron case against the union, he is not minded to put himself through a lengthy law suit. Baron certainly expects him to agree new terms.

"Brian remains a highly valued employee and remains under contract," he said, blithely ignoring the fact that some clauses in that contract proved unworthy of the paper on which they were written. "We want him to stay part of our elite rugby structure and the role we've offered him is a wider role than the one he previously held with the academy. I'll be sitting down with him next week to finalise the details. He still has a massive amount to offer."

In some ways, Baron and Andrew played a canny hand. They were nice about Ashton; their answers were given at such interminable length that it seemed they had taken a House of Lords course in the art of filibustering; they managed to keep straight faces when rejecting suggestions that Ashton had been mistreated. But ultimately, their account was unconvincing. No one seriously doubts that a hawkish wing of the management board decided in mid-Six Nations that the coaching team would not be allowed to continue, and that they made this crystal clear to Andrew. Unsurprisingly, the board chairman, Martyn Thomas, did not pitch up at Twickenham yesterday.

Whether the men at the heart of this tawdry episode will survive it, no one can tell. The RFU membership as a whole cannot conceivably be happy that their organisation has outperformed every other governing body in world sport in generating negative publicity about itself, but it is also true to say that the survival skills of senior Twickenhamites frequently beggar belief. Can Johnson outlast these people? Don't bet on it.

The new attack coach: Five men in the running

*Mike Catt

One of Johnson's World Cup winners in 2003, the London Irish midfielder has potential. He also happens to be available.

*Austin Healey

The Leicester Lip has been pedalling stories that the outgoing Brian Ashton wanted him on board. Surely behind Catt in the pecking order.

*Jim Mallinder

Currently director of rugby at Northampton, who are desperate to keep him. Perhaps Johnson's preferred candidate.

*Jake White

The South African guided the Springboks to glory last year and has been making eyes at England ever since.

*Eddie Jones

The craftiest of tacticians and a brilliant coach to boot. Unfortunately, Saracens have the Australian under lock and key.