Vultures begin to circle over Ashton

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The Independent Online

This much is certain, even in the unstable world of the red rose army: Graham Rowntree, the former Leicester prop, will be on the coaching staff for this summer's two-Test trip to New Zealand, which is already looking about as enticing as a bed-and-breakfast deal at the Bates Motel. We know this because Toby Booth, the highly -rated forwards strategist at London Irish, has already been appointed as Rowntree's replacement in the second-string Saxons set-up. Worryingly for the likes of Brian Ashton, John Wells and Mike Ford, we know little else.

The vultures are perched on the Twickenham roof, drooling at the prospect of coaching carrion should England lose tomorrow's final Six Nations match, against Ireland. Some of this unwelcome birdlife bears a remarkable resemblance to certain prominent members of the Rugby Football Union's management board – the very people who enthusiastically sanctioned the reappointment of Ashton and his colleagues following their success in guiding the team to a World Cup final as recently as last autumn, but are now squawking (anonymously, of course) about the financial cost of failure.

A good England victory tomorrow might leave them second in the final standings – the best performance since 2003. In that event, Ashton would be certain to join Rowntree in All Black country. But defeat would place Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby who recommended the coach's reappointment on a mysterious "indefinite contract", in a very tight spot. Andrew, who started his job only 18 months ago and is already on his second head coach, would be honour-bound to stand by the conclusion he reached in December. That, or resign.

Happy days, then. "I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for us," said Phil Vickery, the captain, "but that home defeat against Wales in the first round of the championship had a demoralising effect and we're low on confidence. We're not far away from being a bloody good team – I'm convinced of that, and I want to continue being a part of it. But the new agreement between the union and the Premiership clubs kicks in this July, a lot of money will be crossing palms, and if people don't prove they're worth a place, they won't be involved."

Not for the first time in recent months Vickery went out of his way to defend Ashton against those peddling rumours of dressing-room discontent. "There are always issues between players and coaches," he said, resurrecting some well worn lines from the World Cup aftermath. "When you bring together people who play their club rugby in totally different styles, there is bound to be a degree of conflict. But there is no one in this squad who totally disagrees with the way we're trying to play. You can blame who you like for last week's unacceptable performance at Murrayfield: Brian, his fellow coaches, Rob Andrew, Francis Baron [the RFU chief executive], myself. But remember this: the changes over the last 12 months have been huge. Am I mistaken, or am I the only player left who started the game against Ireland a year ago?" No, he was not mistaken.

Vickery is praying that Danny Cipriani, the new outside-half, will do something – anything – to propel England's one-dimensional back division into a different sphere. Ireland are equally intent on keeping the 20-year-old in his place. "I've played against him this season and, although he's inexperienced, he's very capable," said the Munster open-side flanker David Wallace, who will be charged with roughing-up duties. His team-mate, the full-back Geordan Murphy, was yesterday passed fit to line up at Twickenham.

Wales, meanwhile, have an eye on their second Grand Slam in four years. Precious few people saw them coming – like Ireland, they failed to negotiate a passage into the World Cup knockout phase. Certainly, the French hooker Dimitri Szarzewski, who faces them tomorrow, is bewildered by their progress.

"I saw their opening match against England, and the result was a bit surprising," he said yesterday. "But their pack is operating at a good level now and if we are to win this game, we will have to take a step bigger than the one we took in beating the Italians last weekend. There will be a lot of intensity in this match."

France must win by 20 points to deny Wales the title. The last time Les Bleus played them at the Millennium Stadium, in a World Cup warm-up fixture last August, they won by 27.

The Scotland winger Nikki Walker has been ruled out of their match in Italy with an ankle injury. Andrew Henderson, Ben Cairns and John Barclay have been added to the travelling party and a revised team will be announced today.

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