Does Ashton really know what he wants?
August 14, 2007
The experimenting is over - or is it? We now know England's World Cup squad but do we know what is going on inside Brian Ashton's head? John Taylor reports
The man who built his reputation as a coach by producing exciting back divisions, who encouraged individual flair and innovation, appears to have become ultra-conservative in his old age - or is it simply pragmatic, an acceptance that England do not have any outstanding midfield players?
I suspect it is a bit of both. The weight of responsibility is huge and he has culled all the exciting young bucks who promised so much during the Six Nations.
Toby Flood, Nick Abendanon, Danny Cipriani and Shane Geraghty are undoubtedly inexperienced but they have so much to offer. I would certainly have liked to see one of them there to give England more attacking potential as an option. Only Matthew Tait has made the cut and, judging by the way Ashton has used him so far, he is unlikely to see much action.
Instead, the midfield is full of reliable but pedestrian strong men. We are now led to believe that Andy Farrell's fitness has moved on to another level and everything is in place to allow Union fans to see why he was rated so highly in Rugby League. I still have my doubts - even against hapless Wales he looked short of that vital yard and, while he runs good angles and distributes the ball well, he still looks at sea defensively once the game moves on from the set pieces.
Jamie Noon and Danny Hipkiss are both power houses but they will hardly frighten the opposition with their pace or their ability to beat a man. Mike Catt did wonderfully well on his return to international rugby in the Six Nations but I cannot see him prising open the defences of the big southern hemisphere back divisions without the support of players with real pace.
An in form Josh Lewsey can offer exactly that and I have always thought his best position is probably centre. However, his versatility has worked against him and all the indications suggest we shall see him used only as a wing or fullback unless he comes off the bench.
There is plenty of attacking potential in the back three - Paul Sackey could be the surprise package of the tournament and Jason Robinson is still the best finisher in the business - but I cannot see where the mid-field penetration is coming from unless Ashton suddenly rediscovers his own sense of adventure and surprises us with some bold selections.
My first choice starting line-up for the backs would be Mark Cueto, Paul Sackey, Danny Hipkiss, Josh Lewsey, Jason Robinson, Jonny Wilkinson and Shaun Perry simply because every one offers a potential threat.
The forward selection is also cautious with experience invariably winning out over potential and versatility also coming into the mix.
I have no qualms about the front-row - there is real strength at prop now that Andrew Sheridan is fit again and, at last, he has learned how to stay on his feet in the loose so that he can make those essential hard yards. None of the hookers can come close to Steve Thompson at his peak but they are the best available.
I would definitely have gone for Tom Palmer at the expense of Steve Borthwick in the second row. Borthwick is renowned for his organisational abilities, especially at the line-out, but I have not seen him dominate his opposite number at the top level and I believe that is essential in the really big games.
Simon Shaw is doing just that in his old age and it is great to see him as probably the number one front jumper because he has wonderful hands and contributes hugely in every aspect of the game. He has been woefully underused in the past few years. It is also good to see Ben Kay back to somewhere near his best so no worries about the second row.
For the first time since 2003 England have a front five to match any nation in the world.
But what about the back row? Nobody can have real confidence about the choices there.
I'm not sure if Ashton really knows what he wants and I can see more experimentation ahead even at this late stage.
It has been a problem area for England ever since the last World Cup. Joe Worsley and Lewis Moody both looked to have the potential to be world class but, if we are brutally honest, they have been very disappointing. The physiques are right but the skills and rugby brains constantly let them down.
Tom Rees the potential to provide the missing link on the open side and, hamstring allowing, is a vital cog in England's armoury but I am amazed James Haskell has missed out. I would have backed him to emerge as first choice blind-side with Lawrence Dallaglio and Nick Easter sharing the No. 8 duties.
The problem, as Martin Johnson pinpointed a few months ago, is that very few new players have broken through and established themselves as core players for England since the last World Cup so Ashton is in the unenviable position of having to gamble even at this late stage.
He promised he would field his strongest XV against France this weekend in Marseille but he is still guessing and desperately needs this match to test his midfield and back row combinations at the top level.
England look fit and raring to go - there are certainly no question marks about their physical readiness - and they have made significant steps forward in the last few months but they still have to discover a potent attacking edge if they are to stand a chance of reaching the semi-finals. If they get that far they can start to dream - anything is possible.