It took the Rugby Football Union's management board six long hours to conclude their brutal business yesterday, which suggested that at least some of the membership had been shamed into asking exactly what the England head coach Brian Ashton had done to deserve public humiliation on such a scale, but the outcome was wholly predictable. Martin Johnson, the World Cup-winning captain five years ago, will take up a newly-created position of team manager in July, with Ashton declared surplus to requirements.
Johnson has no relevant managerial experience – his anonymous wanderings in the lower reaches of the banking industry a decade-and-a-half ago do not add up to a fat lot when it comes to running an international rugby side – yet he has been handed a significant amount of power by a union desperate to boost their competitive and commercial standing with some tangible success in major championships. By negotiating himself the right to hire and fire his own coaches and govern team selection, he can act more dictatorially than any senior red-rose figure since Sir Clive Woodward flounced out of Twickenham in a fearful temper in the late summer of 2004.
Ashton, successful enough to have taken England to a World Cup final in France last year and achieve his country's best Six Nations finish since 2003 as recently as last month, would have relished the kind of freedom granted to Johnson, for he found himself working with inherited coaches who did not see the game the same way. Instead, he has been dropped like a stone by his immediate superior, the director of elite rugby Rob Andrew, who, driven along by management board "hawks" demanding a box-office name in the top position, reneged on assurances that the coach would be given a manager of his own choosing.
While his coaching colleagues – the forwards specialist John Wells and the defence strategist Mike Ford, together with the scrummaging technician Graham Rowntree and the kicking expert Jon Callard – have kept their jobs and will travel to New Zealand for the two-Test series with the All Blacks in June, the RFU's latest leper must now decide whether to accept the offer of a return to the national academy, which he helped set up in 2002. "I am not going to comment on anything at all," he said last night. "I'm just digesting the news." That, and wondering whether he can stomach spending another day working for an organisation he no longer trusts.
Andrew, whose own position could come under heavy pressure when he finally raises his head above the parapet and attempts to explain the painful events of the last four weeks, will act as manager in New Zealand because Johnson has made himself unavailable as a result of his wife's pregnancy. In a statement issued after yesterday's meeting, he praised Ashton in the following terms: "I would like to thank Brian for the job he has done in difficult circumstances. He is an outstanding coach and deserves enormous credit. While he is naturally disappointed that he will not have a role in the new senior structure, I believe the post we have offered him is ideally suited to his special talents and expertise."
Weasel words? Ashton's supporters – and there are many of them – believe so. Embarrassingly for the union and its chairman Martyn Thomas, one of the principal voices against Ashton in recent weeks, there was a second statement of praise. "The board were unanimous in their support of the recommendations placed before us by Rob Andrew," said Thomas. "They were also fulsome in their thanks and praise for Brian in the work he has done." Presumably, Thomas did not understand that "fulsome" means "excessive" and "insincere". Or maybe he did.
Johnson, whose circle let it be known that he would not take the job if Ashton remained involved but were reluctant to offer any reason, will begin work on the day the new agreement between the RFU and the Premiership clubs comes into force. This is a massive advantage, one for which Ashton would happily have killed. Under its terms, the England coaches will have uninterrupted access to the elite players in both the autumn international and Six Nations windows, together with increased preparation time before each spell of Test activity. Neither Ashton nor his predecessor, Andy Robinson, were anywhere near so privileged.
But any notion that Johnson will be given the kind of elbow room denied to Robinson and Ashton as he moves towards the 2011 World Cup is fanciful in the extreme. Unlike Marc Lievremont, the recently-appointed coach of France, he will not be permitted to field experimental sides in important fixtures because Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU, counts the cost of every defeat in pounds, shillings and pence. What is more, the forthcoming Tests in New Zealand, together with the four matches scheduled for Twickenham in November – against the Pacific Islands, Australia and South Africa, together with a return fixture with the All Blacks – will effectively decide England's position in the draw for the next global gathering. It may well be that if they fail to win at least three of these contests, they will find themselves drawn in a group with a top-four nation.
Few of those who played alongside Johnson, who will appoint an additional coach when the right man becomes available, doubt he will perform strongly. His standing among the World Cup-winning vintage – the Mike Catts, the Neil Backs, the Matt Dawsons, the Will Greenwoods – is high, and it will be no surprise if he persuades at least a couple of them to join him in the back-room team over the coming months.
But many others cannot see past the way Ashton has been victimised. The Johnson era has been born under a bad sign, and if this ride is to be more comfortable than that endured by Ashton, he will have to win over the hearts and minds of the rugby public a second time.Reuse content