England – Victory over Ireland on Saturday will not be enough to save Brian Ashton’s job and only a performance of stunning adventure at Twickenham will rescue the England coach’s 15-month reign.
Sources at the Rugby Football Union indicate the ruling body has run out of patience with England’s one-dimensional rugby, the nadir of which was reached in the dismal defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday.
According to The Guardian website, the RFU will begin its review of England’s Six Nations campaign next Monday and should it find against Ashton, Jake White, who guided South Africa to success in the Rugby World Cup final at England’s expense, would be the favourite to take over.
The inquest will be conducted by the RFU’s director of elite rugby, Rob Andrew, four months after the governing body accepted his recommendation, following an exhaustive review, that Ashton and his two assistants, John Wells and Mike Ford, should be kept on after their achievement in reaching the World Cup final.
Ashton is on a one-year rolling contract, something which has been interpreted as sinister, but all the RFU’s directors, including the chief executive, Francis Baron, and Andrew are employed on the same basis.
Andrew will be expected to complete his review by the end of the month, leaving the RFU ample time to seek a new head coach should Ashton be dismissed.
Andrew took two months to decide the head coach’s future last year, but he will be ordered to hurry things up next week by the RFU which is coming under rank-and-file pressure to get rid of Ashton.
The abject nature of the defeat to Scotland has left some at Twickenham feeling that a change at the top is required no matter what Andrew might recommend and how England perform against Ireland.
While the decision of the RFU’s management board last December to retain the coaching team was unanimous, misgivings were expressed about the style of rugby played during the World Cup and whether the squad was being offered firm leadership.
It was ultimately felt that to sack a coach who had guided his side to a final would not have been a popular move, but the mood of supporters has changed after another tournament which, in a creative sense, has been barren.
England have scored six tries in their last seven Tests but only one, their first against Italy in Rome following Michael Lipman’s lineout steal, was created in the fashion that has typified the campaigns of the top two teams in the Six Nations table, Wales and France.
Ashton’s men were muted as an attacking force at Murrayfield with a lack of ideas and direction.
It is just 15 months since the RFU fired Ashton’s predecessor, Andy Robinson. He now coaches Edinburgh and last week took some training sessions with the Scotland forwards, paying particular attention to the breakdown, an area dominated by the Scots last Saturday.
White has not worked in rugby since the Springboks’ short tour of Europe last November. He has been linked with the Lions, who tour South Africa next year, but he said last month that he saw England as the ideal job.
“They have a rugby culture and they have played in three World Cup finals out of six,” he said. “They have a lot of things going for them.”
The day after South Africa’s World Cup success, when he knew his contract with the Springboks would not be renewed, he said England were one of the few teams of which he would consider taking charge.
Ashton was criticised at the weekend by Sir Clive Woodward, one of his predecessors and his former boss, for removing Wasps flyhalf Danny Cipriani from the squad for Scotland, hours before the plane left for Edinburgh, after he had been photographed coming out of a London nightclub past midnight.
Before the start of the Six Nations, Woodward said that the RFU had undermined Ashton during last year’s review by asking players to vote on whether he should stay or go, and added that the head coach should be seen to be in charge.
White would fit that criterion, while the Wasps head coach, Shaun Edwards, whose escape from England to take charge of Wales’ defence in January caused considerable RFU frustration, is another.