Johnson to take control of England

Martin Johnson has agreed in principle to take over as England team manager, The Times has learnt. Subject to finalising terms with the Rugby Football Union (RFU), his appointment should be ratified next week. His arrival at Twickenham, which would be after the tour to New Zealand in June, is almost certain to herald the departure of Brian Ashton, the head coach, given that Johnson will have the power to hire and fire as well as control over selection.

After ten days of mounting speculation and clandestine meetings between the World Cup-winning captain and Rob Andrew, the union’s director of elite rugby, the most recent of which was held this week, Johnson has, after much thought, indicated that he would find the lure of working with England extremely attractive. Negotiations will continue over his exact job description as well as details of his salary and length of contract. Once those have been resolved, the decision to install Johnson, 38, would be put before an emergency meeting of the RFU’s management board for formal approval.

Johnson is still weighing up the options regarding his coaching team. Ashton could conceivably be asked to stay on in the short term and lead England to New Zealand, but whether he would want to is a different matter. Johnson has indicated that he would not be available for that tour because Kay, his wife, is expecting their second child in June.

Pat Howard could be a key figure in the new regime. An experienced backs coach, the former Australia international and Leicester director of rugby knows Johnson well from their time together at Welford Road. Howard, who has also been mentioned as a possible successor to Eddie O’Sullivan as Ireland head coach, is available, having last month left the Australian Rugby Union, for whom he had managed their high-performance unit since returning from England last May.

Graham Rowntree, the former Leicester and England prop, is likely to retain his consultancy role as scrum coach. Whether John Wells, the former Leicester flanker and head coach, stays on as forwards coach is uncertain, creating as it would a Leicester “mafia” at the top of the England coaching hierarchy.

Johnson, who retired as a player after leading England to World Cup victory in 2003, has had numerous offers of employment since, but has been happy to bide his time, enjoy a successful testimonial year and concentrate on lucrative media and corporate work. Despite reservations in some quarters about his lack of coaching qualifications and experience, he is confident that the time is now right to return to the sport.

Throughout the discussions between Johnson and Andrew, Ashton has maintained a dignified silence as he prepares for the two internationals against the All Blacks, with the party due to leave in nine weeks. He does feel, though, that he should have had some input into the appointment of a manager and the failure to include him in the process has left him humiliated and bewildered.

There will be some sympathy for Ashton for the way he has been treated and the circumstances in which he has had to operate. He inherited a coaching team in January 2007 not of his choosing but managed to guide England to the World Cup final in October and second place in this year’s RBS Six Nations Championship.