One way or another, the Barbarians are about to gather at the gates of Twickenham for Brian Ashton. The question is: will they be the 14 men in suits convening at red rose headquarters for the Rugby Football Union's management board meeting today, or the 15 players wearing the black and white hoops of the celebrated invitational side on the afternoon of Sunday 1 June?
The next official assignment for England's head coach is a Twickenham fixture against the Baa-Baas, before a potential lambs-to-the-slaughter two-Test mission to New Zealand in early summer. Events behind closed doors at HQ today are likely to determine whether Ashton will still be the chief honcho then, or whether his head will have rolled.
What is certain is that there will be calls for fresh blood from some members of the management board when Rob Andrew, the RFU's elite director of rugby, presents his review of England's patchy performance in the Six Nations Championship just gone and outlines his recommendations for the future. Andrew is expected to offer his backing to Ashton, but also his support for Martin Johnson to be installed as team manager, a move that would assuage the more hawkish elements of the management board – all the more so, considering it would probably lead to Ashton's departure.
Reappointed on a rolling one-year contract in December, two months after guiding England to the World Cup final, Ashton has made it known he would welcome the appointment of a manager to relieve him of some of his administrative burden. He would be rather less keen on the sudden instalment of a manager who would relieve him of ultimate control of team affairs.
And there is about as much chance of Johnson carrying the players' bags on to the team bus for the Barbarians match as there is of him taking the job without being guaranteed the kind of grip on playing matters that he had on the Webb Ellis Cup in the Telstra Stadium back in November 2003.
There is much support within the English game, it would seem, for a new regime headed by the totemic former England, Leicester and Lions team leader – from those aggrieved that Wales have overtaken the beaten 2007 World Cup finalists with a fresh coaching team in place. There are those who have their reservations, though – such as Jeff Probyn, the former England prop and RFU committee member.
"Rob needs his head examining if he recommends bringing Martin Johnson in," Probyn said yesterday. "He's a character and was a good captain, but a good captain of a side that had five or six captains in it.
"He has no experience of management,or administration, even at club level. It would be the same as putting Lawrence Dallaglio, or Will Carling in that position. They'd have strong ideas about the players that should be picked or the way the game should be played.
"If you believe that Brian Ashton isn't making the right decisions then you need to put someone in there who does make the right decisions. Brian has stated he wants a manager, but not a manager as an equal on the rugby front. There is no compromise there. Brian wants an administrator, but Martin would want a say in the rugby. If you did put a manager like that in there, you'd expect Brian to resign."
And Ashton has been this kind of way before, of course. Back in 1998, he resigned as Ireland's head coach, barely 12 months into a six-year contract – complaining of manoeuvring behind the scenes. "I don't know whose game plan that was, but it had nothing to do with me," he famously remarked in the aftermath of what proved to be his final match, a 17-16 defeat against Scotland at Lansdowne Road.
Ashton was afflicted by shingles at the time – unlike Eddie O'Sullivan, who was simply suffering from a bad side when he tendered his resignation as Ireland coach last week. Reports from Ireland yesterday suggest that the Irish RFU is considering a making a caretaker appointment for the summer dates against the Barbarians, Australia and New Zealand.
* The Saracens lock Chris Jack will miss the rest of the season after suffering tendon damage to his hand during the 30-3 defeat to the Ospreys in the Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-finals on Saturday.Reuse content