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Ashton’s predicament is no laughing matter



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Whether you believe Brian Ashton is or is not the right man to carry on coaching England, it ought not to be too difficult to decide whether he should continue in his post.

Unless, of course, you are the Rugby Football Union (RFU).

A series of articles in the British press have suggested Martin Johnson, England’s 2003 World Cup-winning captain, is on the brink of becoming the national ‘team manager’, or even head coach, although he has no senior coaching experience, provided the RFU can agree terms with the former Leicester lock.

Ashton, in rugby parlance, was given something of a ‘hospital pass’ when he took over from sacked predecesssor Andy Robinson before the start of last year’s Six Nations.

Yet under the 61-year-old’s guidance England reached the 2007 World Cup final and last month came second in the Six Nations – their best finish in the tournament since they completed a Grand Slam five years ago.

But after a meeting of its management board on March 26, the RFU authorised its elite rugby director Rob Andrew to continue talks regarding the appointment of a team manager.

An RFU statement said recommendations on a new manager and specialist coach appointments would be made to a meeting of Club England, the group that oversees Test matters, early in April.

They would then “make final recommendations to the RFU Management Board which will convene, as necessary, an additional meeting ahead of its scheduled meeting on the 30 April to consider these recommendations”.

There was something very English about the prospect of an extra meeting being presented as a sign of decisive action.

Autobiographies published by former England stars Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt following the team’s World Cup final defeat by South Africa last year suggested players had had to force Ashton into getting a grip following the record 36-0 Pool phase defeat by the Springboks.

Ashton’s ‘problem’ has been that his England teams kept winning games just when his critics within the RFU, and beyond, decided they wouldn’t.

The old adage of ‘never change a winning side’ (something abandoned by new Wales coach Warren Gatland during his team’s Grand Slam run this year), appeared to be the rationale behind Ashton keeping his job after the World Cup.

However, the RFU gave itself some leeway by not providing Ashton with a contract taking him through to the 2011 edition in New Zealand.

Unusually for the coach of a major sports team, Ashton inherited his backroom staff rather than insisting on appointing his own men.

His acceptance of that set-up may help explain his current treatment.

Another factor is the sheer number of people involved in having a say in who becomes England coach.

As well as chief executive Francis Baron and Andrew having their say, along with the 13-member management board, a further complication is the presence of Club England, an advisory group containing former internationals. The end result is a recipe for intrigue.

It has been reported that former England outside-half and Newcastle boss Andrew is not the prime mover in the bid to recruit Johnson, with the impetus coming from the management board.

But Andrew has maintained a near-monastic period of silence on the issue which led his old England fly-half rival, Stuart Barnes to accuse him of “betraying” Ashton in Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper.

Andrew was already under scrutiny after questioning whether Shaun Edwards could combine his new part-time role as Wales’s defence supremo with his day job as Wasps’s coach.

So successful has Edwards, who turned down a position with the England reserve side after failing to being offered a more senior post, been with Wales they conceded just two tries, a tournament record, during the Six Nations.

Clive Woodward, England’s World Cup-winning coach in 2003, was scathing regarding And

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