The sorry Ashton affair destined to end in tears

Johnson out to be sheriff and Twickenham isn't big enough for both
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The Independent Online

As statements go, it was spectacularly boring, but then it was designed to reveal as little as possible. Rob Andrew, the Rugby Football Union's elite rugby director, has had one one-hour meeting with Martin Johnson about taking on the role of team manager, and they are expectedto meet again this week.

Andrew had to cut short a holiday to Greece and was denied more time to prepare an interim report to the management board, who then told the world: "We were unanimous in authorising him to continue the discussions currently under way to strengthen the England team structure through the recruitment of a team manager and an additional specialist coach.

"Recommendations on these appointments will be made to a Club England meeting in early April, who will then make final recommendations to the management board which will convene, as necessary, an additional meeting ahead of its scheduled meeting on 30 April to considerthese recommendations." The world yawned.

Not a mention of either Brian Ashton or Martin Johnson, the coach and former player at the heart of an affair that seems destined to end in tears. Twickenham ain't big enough for both of them, and Johnson would want to wear the sheriff's badge. The key word in the RFU's bald statement was "unanimous". Ashton does not enjoy such support on the management board, but those closest to him say he is sticking to his guns.

"Martin hasn't said yes to the offer but he hasn't said no," a management board member said. "England are lacking an edge and consistency, and the message from some of the players is that they are not totally happy with Brian. The team needs a figure of authority but that doesn't mean we are going down the soccer route and the coach gets the boot."

Last year, Andrew assured Ashton that the appointment of a team manager would be down to the coach. Ashton is working on the assumption that nothing has changed, and in recent weeks has been preparing for England's game against the Barbarians at Twickenham on 1 June and the two-Test visit to New Zealand.

If Ashton is bewildered by recent events, it is hardly surprising. Whenever the RFU mention the word "review", a majority of observers equate it to the Night of the Long Knives. England have been in the habit of indulging in some bloodletting over the last few seasons, but the speculation over Ashton has bordered on the hysterical.

Andrew's clandestine meeting with Johnson helped to fuel the debate, and in the ensuing confusion the silence from Twickenham has been deafening. After England beat Ireland in the Six Nations, Andrew met Ashton, and a host of other RFU personnel, to plan for the next 12 months. It has been forgotten that Ashton's own review of the season does not take place until 14 April. His assistant coaches are currently on holiday, doubtless wondering what on earth is going on.

Andrew is duty bound to honour his agreement with Ashton, whom he backed for the World Cup and the ensuing Six Nations. England finished second in both competitions; a remarkable achievement in the former, not so great in the latter.

If Johnson accepts the role conflict seems inevitable, because the World Cup-winning captain's idea of a "team manager" would be very different from Ashton's. The head coach has said he wants an "operations manager", somebody to deal with administration and other off-field issues. That role, which would not interest Johnson, need not even be full-time. Although a list of candidates, headed by Phil de Glanville, had been drawn up, no appointment was made, and for the Six Nations the job was performed by Ashton's personal assistant.

Ashton has made mistakes. His selection of Iain Balshaw was bizarre, especially after the full-back had contributed to England's downfall against Wales at Twickenham, and the rapid promotion of Lesley Vainikolo was premature. The gameplan in the defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield was even more boring than an RFU statement, and then there was the Danny Cipriani imbroglio. It should never have been allowed to develop into a cause célèbre.

In Ashton's defence, he has had to deal with a massive number of changes. By the time England finished the Six Nations, only one member of the team, the captain, Phil Vickery, was a survivor from the previous season's Test against Ireland at Croke Park. Whatever, Ashton remains the best man for the job.

It is understood that the 61-year-old Ashton has had no communication with the 38-year-old Johnson. It is also understood that Ashton believes he will continue to be in charge of team selection and the way England play, and that the choice of a team manager will be his and his alone. He also wants to recruit a specialist coach to assist with the backs and attack.

What he probably needs more than ever, though, is somebody to watch his back.