Johnson will add to doubts over Ashton future

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The Independent Online

The behind-the-scenes assault on an England coaching team responsible for second-place finishes in the World Cup and the Six Nations Championship has been going on for more than a month now – more than five months, some would argue – and there is little likelihood of this tawdry episode drawing to a close today, despite the widely anticipated appointment of the former national captain Martin Johnson in a freshly devised role at the top of the red rose operation. But at least the incumbents, including the head coach Brian Ashton, will finally know what is being thrust upon them, and start planning their response.

It is the stated aim of the Rugby Football Union, as expounded by the chief executive, Francis Baron, eight days ago, that Ashton, who was thought to be in discussions at Twickenham yesterday, and his principal lieutenants – the forwards specialist John Wells and the defence strategist Mike Ford – be encouraged to work within the "new structure".

If the coaches are taking those words with an entire ocean's worth of salt, no one could blame them. The union has already reneged on its public assurances to Ashton that no manager-type figure would be appointed without his approval, while Ford woke last Friday to read that Johnson, yet to be formally recruited, had been discussing his job with Shaun Edwards, of Wasps and Wales.

Today, a management board meeting hastily convened by the chairman, Martyn Thomas, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of change at the top of the England set-up, will consider a report by the director of elite rugby, Rob Andrew, who, as recently as December, recommended that Ashton, Wells and Ford remain in place. Ashton is unlikely to find these latest recommendations nearly so palatable.

Both Thomas and Baron have rubbished reports that Johnson will carry the title of "head coach", but should the great second-row forward from Leicester take over as selector-in-chief, with additional responsibility for the hiring and firing of the back-room team, it will be impossible to escape the conclusion that Ashton has been demoted. With a two-Test tour of New Zealand looming in June – a tour for which the existing coaches have already started preparing – both England and the RFU hierarchy could shortly find themselves up to their eyeballs in the smelly stuff.

Under normal circumstances, Andrew would have tabled his recommendations to the union's Club England committee – a body far better equipped in terms of rugby knowledge than the management board. (This, if truth be told, is no great achievement). However, today's gathering will take place 24 hours before the next scheduled Club England meeting, rather than 24 hours after it. After weeks of seeing his organisation's name dragged through the mud, Thomas is desperate for a quick conclusion.

Things are expected to rumble on, irrespective of any conclusions reached today. Management board members are by no means as one on these great issues of state: some are fearful that if Johnson is granted carte blanche, the RFU will eventually find itself at odds with him, as it did with Sir Clive Woodward; others are questioning the logic of employing someone with no managerial or coaching experience in such an exposed position; still more are disgusted at the union's treatment of Ashton, whose results are better than those delivered by either Woodward, who presided over the 2003 World Cup success, or his successor, Andy Robinson, at similar stages of their respective tenures as coach.

Another of Ashton's predecessors, Dick Best, gave voice to that disgust yesterday. "I find it amazing that, in this day and age of human resources, they have the audacity to treat someone in this fashion," he said. "It has been incredibly badly handled, but that is in keeping with the way the RFU handles its business. I used to think football was bad. We are going down the same route. We all wish Martin Johnson the very best of luck, dealing with people like this."

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