Twickenham, now so infamous as a coaches' graveyard that Burke and Hare are desperately seeking places on the management board, was at the centre of many a supporter's thoughts yesterday. Not because the Six Nations Committee announced that England would open their 2009 championship campaign there with a match against Italy on the first full weekend in February, but because the feeling of disgust over the Rugby Football Union's treatment of Brian Ashton was growing more widespread by the minute.
Fran Cotton, once the most formidable figure on the union and a close ally of the new national team manager, Martin Johnson, during the triumphant British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa 11 years ago, was positively venomous in his criticism of the RFU hierarchy. The former prop warmed up with the words "absolutely appalling", got fully into his stride with "duplicitous", accused the organisation of being "less than honest" and concluded by saying: "If they were that unhappy with Brian, they should have done this properly. And they haven't."
Judging by the reaction of observers in the legal profession, Cotton was not far wrong. One employment lawyer, Rob Riley of Addleshaw Goddard LLP, suggested the 61-year-old Ashton might have cases for constructive dismissal, unfair dismissal, breach of contract and, possibly, age discrimination. "You would rarely find a public limited company in the mess the RFU has got itself into," he said yesterday. "When a major business seeks to part with a senior individual, it should address two areas: the cost, and the protection of the reputations of both parties. It seems the RFU has gone about this the wrong way, and spent far too long doing it."
When the union ratified Johnson's appointment on Wednesday, simultaneously sacking their head coach as part of the deal less than six months after England's appearance in a second successive World Cup final and less than four after Ashton had been given a new contract and assured he would have a team manager of his own choosing, they also accepted the proposal of one of the men most in the firing line, the director of elite rugby Rob Andrew, that Ashton be offered a return to the national academy, which he ran with considerable success between 2002 and 2005. Should he accept the role, he will save his employers an awful lot of face, as well as a lot of money.
But Ashton feels so angry and humiliated that there is no guarantee he will play ball. He has contacted his legal advisers, and those advisers are examining every syllable and punctuation mark of the contract their client signed shortly before Christmas. As one RFU council member said earlier this week: "This one could run and run, unfortunately for us."
As things stand, the reshaped England hierarchy is weaker today than it was 48 hours ago. They are down on numbers, and there is no immediate likelihood of a top-line attack coach being recruited – certainly not one as good as Ashton, who is still widely regarded as the best operator of his kind in Europe.
Early indications from Northampton are that Jim Mallinder wants to stick with the Midlanders on their return to the Premiership next season, and that his wealthy chairman, Keith Barwell, will shift heaven and earth to keep him on board if he showed signs of wavering.
Mike Catt, a World Cup-winning midfielder now performing a player-coach role at London Irish, declared some interest in the position yesterday, but as it is only just over a fortnight since he said he wanted to "make his mistakes at club level rather than international level", it was difficult to know just how serious he was being.
Sadly, the Six Nations organisers are deadly serious about playing on a Friday night next year. They announced yesterday that the game between France and Wales, this season's Grand Slam champions, would take place in Paris on 27 February, kicking off at 9pm local time – in other words, just before breakfast. Welsh supporters will get there in their thousands, despite this latest craven kowtowing before the great god television. But the rugby weekend they once knew and loved is fast becoming a thing of the past.
If Johnson is to satisfy his employers by winning the tournament – and second place is nowhere near good enough, as Ashton has just discovered – he will have to do it the hard way. After the opening fixture England travel to Cardiff, and then Dublin where a refurbished Lansdowne Road will be open for business. While they conclude with home matches against France and Scotland, they could easily be out of the running by round four.