Johnson move raises threat of England feud

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Martin Johnson, one of the great lock forwards in the history of the game and the man who led England to their World Cup victory in 2003, spent yesterday negotiating a possible return to the red-rose fold as team manager – a move that Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at Twickenham, is widely expected to recommend to the union next week. Happy days, then? Not quite. A Johnson appointment could cause ructions, not least among the coaching team headed by Brian Ashton.

Last December, when he was awarded a new long-term contract after guiding his country to a second successive World Cup final, Ashton was told he would get the team manager he had requested at the start of his stewardship some 12 months previously, and that he would be free to make his own choice. Phil de Glanville, the former Bath centre and England captain, was high on his list of candidates – an individual with rich experience of sports management to go with a sharp rugby intellect and an easy-going ability to play a front-man role that holds no attractions for Ashton.

Until the middle of this week, De Glanville was a warm favourite to take up the post in good time for the two-Test trip to New Zealand in June. Then Johnson indicated an interest in playing a part at the top end of the England operation, which led to yesterday's meeting, held over and above Ashton's head. It was, to say the least, a peculiar means of giving the coach the major say on the appointment.

Ashton has always considered the role of head coach to be the senior position in the England set-up and quite reasonably assumed that the manager would be working to him. Johnson is not exactly renowned for working to anyone. What is more, the celebrated Leicester second-rower has never managed or coached a rugby team and has no background as a selector. No one questions his knowledge of the game – they wouldn't dare – but the things Johnson did better than anyone else on the field of play are not quite so easily done in a suit and tie.

There is an added complication. Earlier this month, Johnson was confirmed as part of the Premiership clubs' four-man team on the newly-established Professional Game Board, which will take over the running of the top end of English rugby when the new agreement between the Rugby Football Union and the leading teams comes into force in July. Should he take over as manager and move on to the union payroll, his position on the board would be fatally compromised.

Some of the most experienced players in the England squad are furious at the way Ashton has been undermined in recent days: not just by the persistent rumours, fuelled by Twickenham insiders, linking the former Springbok coach Jake White, the former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones and the current Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards to jobs in the red-rose set-up, but by the failure of the RFU itself to show any kind of support for the man who delivered second-place finishes in both the World Cup and the Six Nations Championship – a performance that re-established England as the most successful team in the northern hemisphere.

While it is not thought that Ashton has any serious intention of resigning, he would be less than human if he did not feel betrayed by the events of the last fortnight. There is even growing speculation that Andrew will appoint a specialist backs coach ahead of the New Zealand tour, irrespective of the fact that Ashton has long been acknowledged as the leading exponent of attacking strategy in European rugby. This is uncomfortably reminiscent of the RFU's inexplicable decision to relieve Ashton's direct predecessor, Andy Robinson, of the forward coach's responsibilities despite his outstanding track record in the field – a move that effectively marginalised him and, many believe, contributed to his eventual downfall.

Andrew's recommendations will be tabled at a meeting of the management board on Wednesday, although there is no guarantee the former international outside-half will be present in person. He was due to fly to Greece for a family holiday last night. Should the balloon go up in south-west London next week, Tierra del Fuego might have been a safer bet.

Eddie O'Sullivan, one of the few senior coaches in world rugby not linked with Ashton's non-vacant job, is now looking for gainful employment after resigning his position with Ireland late on Wednesday night. Having presided over a desperate World Cup campaign last autumn he was never likely to survive a drop to fourth in the Six Nations standings. Last weekend's heavy defeat by England was the final straw.

Pat Howard, the one-time Wallaby centre who guided Leicester to two trophies last season before returning home to take up a job with the Australian Rugby Union's high-performance unit, has a good deal of support as a potential replacement, but the field will be a large one. Another Australian, Alan Gaffney, is being mentioned, as is the Munster coach Declan Kidney, the former Wales coach Mike Ruddock and, as ever, the ubiquitous White. As for a dark horse, the inventive Brian Smith of London Irish ticks a good many boxes.