The Rugby Football Union finally got around to confirming today what everyone has known for weeks: that it’s bringing in former England captain Martin Johnson as team manager, and gently elbowing current head coach Brian Ashton out of the picture. They’ve decided to retain the other contracted coaches, but are trying to fob Ashton off with running England’s academy instead – the job he left two years ago to work with the full squad.
It’s been a tough 16 months in charge for Ashton. Although he surprised everyone by taking a mediocre England side to the final of the World Cup, subsequent criticism of his management style from senior players weakened his position, as did Six Nations defeats to Wales and Scotland – even though England actually achieved their highest finish in five years, and introduced some exciting young players (when they weren’t gallivanting around nightclubs).
But although many felt he was the wrong man for the job, he didn’t deserve what happened next. Rather than appoint Ashton’s preferred candidate (so he could focus on coaching), RFU elite rugby director Rob Andrew seems to have opted for a very public recruitment campaign instead. And as soon as Johnson emerged as the likely candidate – which seems like weeks ago now – Ashton was a dead man walking.
It’s always a mystery to us how sporting businesses seem to operate according to a totally different set of rules to the rest of us (it’s now par for the course for football clubs to line up their new manager before getting rid of their old one, for example). It was only four months ago that Andrew gave Ashton an ‘indefinite’ contract (technically a rolling twelve-month deal) and insisted this was a ‘long-term project’... Ex-England hooker Brian Moore, a qualified solicitor as well as a former French-baiting firebrand, told the BBC it was ‘the clearest constructive dismissal I have ever seen’, and suggested that the RFU was lucky Ashton hadn’t sued them already.
And apart from the dubious legality, what kind of damage will this do the RFU’s reputation? The whole thing’s been a complete PR disaster, and it’s a wonder that someone like Johnson would touch the job with a bargepole. As Moore says, ‘What message does it say to anyone who wants to be an employee with them on any contract? We are quite prepared to treat you shamelessly, illegally, badly and in full view of the public.’ Let’s just hope Johnson proves to be as intimidating off the field as he was on it...