Lucky Ashton blessed with exciting generation
John Taylor
December 21, 2007

"Watching Danny Cipriani was something else...I was immediately reminded of the young Barry John and I don't think I have said that about anyone since he retired." Read John Taylor's verdict on Brian Ashton's new deal.

Brian Ashton - would it really have been a travesty if he had not been reappointed as England Coach or is he actually a jammy b******?

I love the way the English press corps has convinced itself he is the right man for the job, 'the best coach in England and therefore the only man to do the job he was already doing' as The Independent put it.

This week they have portrayed Rob Andrew's conclusions after his review as the only logical, good sense conclusion.

It is a very different tune to the one they were playing during the dark days of the pool stages of the World Cup. I too believe he deserves a proper chance but I also believe he got lucky.

I am still convinced England would have gone out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals if they had been drawn against any other pool winner but Australia.

The weakness of the Wallaby front-row gave England a simple game plan and you could see them start to rediscover their self belief as the game progressed. New Zealand, South Africa or Argentina would have been a very different proposition and they would have sunk without trace.

Then there would have been no argument. Ashton would have been dumped regardless of the fact he had been in the job for barely nine months and had been on a hiding to nothing.

Mike Catt and Lawrence Dallaglio's comments would have been seen as confirmation that he was not up to the job rather than acts of sabotage and we would have been looking at a brand new regime.

I'm not defending those comments - I believe there should be a clause in the players' contracts forbidding any diary type book deals where the player is talking to a ghost writer whilst the tournament is in progress - but I do believe they accurately reflect the mood in the England camp at the time they were written.

How much of England's recovery was down to the coach and how much down to the players we shall never know but it was all the more remarkable because it was so unexpected and, on the back of it, Ashton has been given a Lazarus like reprieve.

There is a double bonus. Because Ashton is no Fabio Capello - he would probably do the job for nothing but pride if he was really pushed - England have got a deal that makes sense too.

If he is successful he gets to carry on as long as he wants to, if not he gets a year's salary in lieu of notice. It's fair to both sides and the sort of deal that will be the envy of many other countries who have committed to long term contracts regardless of performance to get their man.

For Ashton it really is a new beginning. Through to the World Cup it was always a caretaker roll and he compromised his own coaching creed accordingly.

Now he has a blank sheet of paper and a hugely promising crop of players to introduce into the mix.

He was always renowned for producing innovative, exciting, back divisions and judging by last weekend's European Cup performances from England's young guns he has plenty of material to work with.

Sweeping changes rarely work in international rugby - evolution rather than revolution is the key - but England have been boring and sterile for far too long now and we shall soon see how bold he is prepared to be.

The decision on who wears the No. 10 jersey in the Six Nations could be the first defining moment in Ashton's new regime.

Jonny Wilkinson is the consummate play maker. His kicking game, although not quite as reliable as it used to be, is one of the soundest in the world; his ability to pass off both hands is second to none and his work rate and defence are phenomenal.

He has been England's star player in two World Cups and there is still nothing of the prima donna about him but is that his weakness? His percentage play somehow sums up the England team.

Suddenly, a whole gang of new stars has burst on the scene and they all have more strut, more attitude and perhaps crucially, more pace and more excitement in their running game.

Ryan Lamb continues to impress at Gloucester, Shane Geraghty is beginning to show again at London Irish and Toby Flood is pushing Wilkinson hard on his home turf at Newcastle but watching Danny Cipriani playing for Wasps against Clermont Auvergne was something else again.

I was immediately reminded of the young Barry John and I don't think I have said that about anyone since he retired.

Having played with three great Welsh fly-halves - John, Phil Bennett and Dai Watkins - the thing that set John apart was his confidence and his vision.

Cipriani has the same ability to drift away from defenders by engaging an overdrive you did not know was there. He can see space and manufacture kicks to put the ball into it; his passing is also inventive and full of awareness; you never know what to expect - and that is the greatest strength of all.

He is also arrogant and cocky, just like John, and that can be a problem as well as an asset as he showed in the second half when he became over ambitious - but what a talent to work with.

Ashton should be in paradise. He has some major decisions to make quite quickly but he has some wonderful options. 2008 could be a very exciting year for the England players and their supporters.

Nadolig Llawen y Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!

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