Why Ashton may pay for RFU's gaffe over Gatland

Within an hour of England beating Ireland at Twickenham a fortnight ago, someone asked Brian Ashton if he thought the pressure had eased over his future.

'What?' he said, with some incredulity. 'In this job? You must be joking. The pressure goes with the position. Whether I'm staying in the job, I have no idea. It's wait and see.'

After 13 days of waiting and seeing, Ashton is preparing for England's next match, a non-Test friendly against the Barbarians at Twickenham on June 1 followed by two decidedly unfriendly Tests against the All Blacks in New Zealand.

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Brian Ashton

Team talk: Brian Ashton listens to Rob Andrew

He is working on the reasonable assumption that he is still England's head coach because nobody at Twickenham has told him anything to the contrary.

As far as Ashton is concerned, nothing has happened post-Six Nations to change his position. The reality is rather different as the RFU clear the decks for Martin Johnson to take control of the entire shooting match and appoint his own team with no guarantee that the current head coach will be among his chosen few.

When Ashton requested a team manager on his reappointment after the World Cup he wanted someone in a support role who would not 'interfere' with the rugby aspects of the operation, like picking the team and the coaches.

Johnson has been called many things in his time but never a glorified gofer, which would have made him eminently unsuitable for the kind of manager Ashton had in mind.

As the RFU in general, and chief executive Francis Baron in particular, know only too well Johnson is not a man to be trifled with. When England's players were sufficiently hacked off at Baron's hardball attitude over a rise in their match fee that they felt driven to vote for industrial action, the captain led them on a strike which did the trick within 24 hours.

Anyone willing to put his reputation on the line by taking such unprecedented action is not going to accept anything less than full responsibility for running the national team. Nobody has had that level of authority since September 2004 when Sir Clive Woodward left Twickenham in a blaze of anger to embark on his fanciful dalliance with football at Southampton.

Since then, the RFU has parted with enough coaches to fill a double-decker bus station - Phil Larder, Joe Lydon, Dave Reddin, Andy Robinson, Phil Keith-Roach and Tony Biscombe.

Ashton has been there and done that, so to speak, having resigned as backs coach before the 2003 World Cup when English backs scored tries on a scale not seen before or since.

He returned two years ago as 'attack' coach, the last addition to a new chain of command set up under Robinson. When Ashton succeeded Robinson six months later, he inherited the two surviving coaches, John Wells and Mike Ford.

Now all three are wondering about their future. Wells, the forwards' coach whose pack got England to the World Cup Final, knows Johnson of old from long years in the trenches together at Leicester. The same goes for Graham Rowntree, whose successful graduation from the front row to specialist scrum coach will stand him in good stead.

Ford, the defence coach, has consistently delivered for England on a scale which ought to guarantee him immunity from suffering by comparison to his Welsh counterpart Shaun Edwards.

In their last eight matches, starting with the World Cup quarter-final against Australia in Marseille, England under Ford have conceded six tries - two of them from charge-downs.

After the pitiful failure at Murrayfield the status quo was no longer a practical option for Rob Andrew, even though he had reappointed the coaching team only three months ago after an exhaustive review of the World Cup.

Questions will be asked as to why Johnson was not approached then but the trick is to use foresight not hindsight. Had the RFU been blessed with more of the former, their Club England committee would have taken a number of bold decisions, starting after Woodward's resignation three-and-a-half years ago. The first would have been to ask Warren Gatland: 'Would you like to coach England?'

Gatland returned to New Zealand at the end of that season, having taken Wasps to the third of their Premiership titles. When England finally got round to sounding him out the following season, it was about the wrong job ¿ the director of elite rugby which was then seen as a shoo-in for Woodward but instead went to Andrew. Gatland said he saw himself as a 'hands-on' tracksuited coach.

That left the door open for Wales, whose Grand Slam success has heightened England's need for the kind of decisive action the Welsh took after their World Cup elimination. Subsequent events, including the out-of-work Springbok coach Jake White saying how much he would like the England job, have not made Ashton's life any easier.

At best he has been undermined, at worst he will be replaced. While the time is unquestionably right for Johnson, the danger is that it will run out for Ashton - perhaps before he has had time to receive his MBE in honour of taking his team to the World Cup Final.

It could always be worse. He could have had another gong from his employers by now in the shape of the OBE - Out By Easter.

Will Quins take gates to the Max?

Max Guazzini has confirmed his status as rugby's version of Phineas T Barnum by turning Stade Francais' Top 14 match against Toulouse into a bigger box-office smash than this week's France-England match.

A crowd of 78,500 watched the football friendly at the Stade de France on Wednesday. At the same stadium last Saturday night, 'Mad Max's' pink-shirted Parisians beat their southern rivals in front of 79,747 spectators, a record for a domestic club rugby match.

It lifted Stade's average league gate for the season by more than 7,000 to almost 26,000, which is more than twice the capacity of their modest suburban home opposite the Parc des Princes.

If Stade president Guazzini can fill the biggest stadium in France by slashing prices and borrowing the can-can girls from the Folies Bergeres, then what's to stop someone like Harlequins doing the same at Wembley?

The question has been raised in this column before and now that Guazzini has turned seven home matches into gates of 70,000-plus, the marketing men at Quins must wonder if they are missing a trick.

They are not the only ones. The Ospreys, for all their Grand Slam glamour and European Cup-winning potential, are still averaging marginally fewer than 9,000 for home matches in the Magners League, not that they have been helped by the scheduling of matches.

Europe's 13 best-supported clubs this season, based on league matches only, are Stade Francais (25,959), Toulouse (19,186), Leicester (17,116), Clermont Auvergne (14,034), Gloucester (13,860), Leinster (13,335), Toulon (12,727), Bayonne (12,679), Perpignan (11,640), Northampton (11,409), London Irish (10,506), Harlequins (10,472), Bath (10,450). And the worst-supported? Edinburgh (2,656), Connacht (2,008), Glasgow (1,823).

Geordan Murphy, none the worse for having once been dubbed the 'George Best of rugby' by Dean Richards, is to stay with Leicester for at least two more years.

Ireland's full back-cum-wing, who made his Tigers debut as a 19-year-old more than a decade ago, will share a testimonial next season with his big pal, England flanker Lewis Moody.

Good and bad news for Ireland in their search for a coach. Pat Howard, the Wallaby who took Leicester to within a whisker of the Anglo-Welsh, Premiership and European Cup treble last season, is working his notice as general manager of the Australian Rugby Union's high performance unit.

Sadly, his next move will not be into coaching but into property. Howard has signed a deal to become chief executive of a property group in his native Brisbane and having just relocated his expanding family, he has no intention of uprooting them.

The more Ireland look abroad, the more they are likely to find Eddie O'Sullivan's successor on their own doorstep - Declan Kidney of Munster.

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