RFU ready to discuss Ashton as caretaker

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The Independent Online

Most people consult the experts before making a decision rather than afterwards, but English rugby is a funny old game populated by some funny old people. Today, more than a week after the ruthlessly engineered departure of Andy Robinson as national coach, the Club England committee of the Rugby Football Union - a body boasting approximately 100 times more specialist rugby knowledge than some of those directly involved in Robinson's demise - will discuss the desperate disappointments of the four-match autumn Test programme and give serious consideration to recommending Brian Ashton for the role of caretaker leader.

The former Bath coach, now in his second spell with England's back-room team, is seen by many at the RFU as the obvious choice, given the difficulties of recruiting from outside the existing team in time for the start of the Six Nations Championship, which begins in the first week of February. Ashton has direct experience of running the show at international level - he coached Ireland in the mid-1990s - and is widely lauded as the most imaginative tactician in the European game. He is also the most senior member of the England staff; indeed, he found himself working under his own protégé when he linked up with Robinson last May.

Much has happened since then, virtually all of it grim, and when Rob Andrew, the elite director of rugby, presents his report to Club England, fun and games could well be the order of the day. The majority of committee members believe they should have been given an opportunity to hear Robinson's side of the story before any P45s were sent out, and will demand a full account of the events immediately following the defeat by the Springboks on 25 November - the third in a month and the eighth in nine outings. Andrew may be a Club England member, but he will not expect an easy ride from the likes of Geoff Cooke, the former national coach, and Simon Halliday, alongside whom he played in the 1991 World Cup.

As ever in the aftermath of failure - and it is a decade since an England team has failed as comprehensively as this one - the political activity is threatening to boil over into something seriously spiteful. The RFU's management board, which has somehow avoided adding Andrew to the membership despite the singular importance of his role at the top end of the game, is seen as weak and short of talent; the professional wing, headed by the beleaguered chief executive, Francis Baron, is being hammered to an even greater extent. "The chimps have taken charge of the zoo," said one insider, woundingly.

Whatever the outcome of today's meeting, there are choppier waters ahead. David Barnes, the Bath prop who chairs the Professional Rugby Players' Association, yesterday tore strips off the union for throwing a seven-figure sum at consultants charged with identifying the optimum structure for professional rugby in England - consultants who had failed to discuss the issue with the two organisations at the sharp end of the top-flight game, the PRA and Premier Rugby (the clubs' umbrella organisation). Barnes warned that players' patience was wearing dangerously thin. "There is only a certain amount of time we will stand for it before saying 'this is what has to happen'," he said, adding that professional rugby should be run by a streamlined body incorporating Premier Rugby, the PRA and a specialist wing of the RFU.

Meanwhile, a group of physical preparation specialists working with clubs in the Guinness Premiership are forming a working party in an effort to force the union into taking urgent steps to improve player welfare. "We're killing our elite athletes, but no one is listening to the facts," said Nick Johnston of Sale, who has spent the week preparing the remains of a squad shorn of 16 injured players for this weekend's big Heineken Cup match with Stade Français in Paris. "We're overplaying our best people but nothing is being done. With the intensity of the programme over Christmas, I would not be surprised if England went into the Six Nations with a 30 per cent injury rate."