2008 Six Nations
Will Ashton be scapegoat for England's failure?
PA Sport's Andrew Baldock
March 13, 2008
Are Brian Ashton's England days numbered? © Getty Images
There is currently a school of thought - an uneducated one in my view - that Brian Ashton will take charge of England for the last time this weekend. Vibes emanating from some Twickenham corridors suggest Ashton could soon follow Andy Robinson in becoming an ex-England head coach.
Ficton or fact?
Suffice to say the rumour-mill is gathering an unhealthy pace. Whatever happens when England play Ireland on Saturday, it seems Ashton faces an uncertain future. The annual review, or that should be inquest, after England's Six Nations season is likely to begin next week.
One possible outcome would be the removal of Ashton and his coaching lieutenants John Wells and Mike Ford, with South Africa's World Cup-winning mastermind Jake White coming in. Now White, it appears, has taken over Nick Mallett's mantle in being linked with every job in the kingdom, rugby or otherwise.
But unfortunately for Ashton, White is currently a free agent and quite probably ready to answer England's call if Rugby Football Union elite rugby director Rob Andrew picks up the phone. England, frankly, have made an horrendous mess of things since they won the World Cup in 2003.
They have recorded just 12 Six Nations victories from 24 starts since that heady night in Sydney, and although England reached a second successive World Cup final last autumn, it climaxed a tournament that also saw them humiliated 36-0 by 2007 champions South Africa 36 days earlier. Pressure, it has been claimed, is coming from rank and file RFU membership for urgent change.
Would parting company with Ashton though, be the answer?
For what it is worth, I like the man. Always have done ever since I first met him at Bath some 14 years ago. I also happen to think he is an outstanding coach who will, if time allows, get the very best out of an England squad that currently does not have maximum resources available.
Injuries have hit England hard this season, and while Ashton would never use that as an excuse, he knows there are players out there he is missing
Could it be something close to the side that launches England's autumn Test programme in November, after which is the time Ashton should be judged, not now. And while we are talking about job security - or the lack of it - Andrew has gone rather quiet.
Here is someone who four months ago - and after an exhaustive World Cup review that he headed - recommended the reappointments of Ashton, Wells and Ford, which then received unanimous RFU management board backing. Subsequently, England's best young coach by some distance - a certain Shaun Edwards of Wasps - is allowed to migrate across the Severn Bridge and help plot Wales' path towards Six Nations silverware.
Andrew will probably be sat somewhere in Ashton's vicinity at Twickenham this weekend. Bet your bottom dollar that if England lose, the BBC cameras will pan in on Andrew, capturing his inevitably stony-faced image in all its glory.
It would be one of those pictures that tell a thousand words moments. To my mind, Andrew needs to take a fair bit of the flak currently flying in England's direction, but is it me or does this guy appear totally and utterly bomb-proof?
Is anyone at the RFU asking him straight questions about England's current struggle? Even if they did, would they get a straight answer?
If Ashton, Wells and Ford go, then how can Andrew remain in his current role? Silence has been deafening from Andrew's direction in the wake of ''Dannygate,'' when Ashton dramatically axed Danny Cipriani last week, and the dire Calcutta Cup defeat against Scotland two days later.
Maybe a career in politics beckons. Momentum is rolling with Wales all the way to their second Six Nations title and Grand Slam in four seasons.
Cardiff will be gripped by Grand Slam fever on Saturday, with an estimated 200,000 people expected in the Welsh capital for a party that could last until next season's Six Nations kicks off. Just 22 words of caution, though - Vincent Clerc, Yannick Jauzion, Damien Traille, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Dimitri Szarzewski, Jerome Thion, Thierry Dusautoir, Julien Bonnaire, Jean-Baptiste Poux, Cedric Heymans.
They too, will head to Cardiff this weekend - just five months after being part of the French 22 that famously knocked New Zealand out of World Cup contention at the Millennium Stadium. I am the last person who wants to spoil this particular planned knees-up, but Welsh fans should just beware the gatecrashers. If in doubt, give Graham Henry a call.