Brian Ashton’s team selection this week has left me with mixed emotions – delight at the potential in positions 10 to 15, and utter bewilderment in the back row selection. It has also left me thinking that Ashton is still not clear in his approach to England’s defence of the World Cup.
Ashton appears to have mixed objectives for the match against Wales. There are some combinations that look to be the first choice – Ashton will want to see how they fare and give them the opportunity to develop. For others, it looks like one last chance to stake a claim in the final 30-man World Cup squad.
The midfield of Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half with Andy Farrell and Dan Hipkiss in the centres is a potentially formidable prospect. Wales will do well to breach the line in this area, with all of those three having exceptional defensive records. They also offer some creativity in attack, with Farrell’s quality distribution and Hipkiss’ ability to run at angles and make breaks.
Moreover, with Farrell and Hipkiss making breaks and half-breaks, they will create opportunities to offload in the tackle and unleash the back three, where David Strettle, Jason Robinson and Mark Cueto will offer speed and undisputable finishing ability.
With this in mind, Shaun Perry’s role at scrum-half will be to deliver the ball, rather than make ground by himself – just as well, given that Perry has a bullet-like pass, but provides little threat in attack.
Up front, there are some unusual selections, most notably in the back row. Why Ashton feels as though he needs to find a position for Martin Corry is beyond me. Yes, he’s a good player to have around when your back is against the wall and he will offer everything in pursuit of victory, but he does not have enough pace to be an attacking threat – he runs in straight lines and is easy for defences to deal with. It was thought he would only be considered in the second row, but his selection at blindside flanker raises further concerns over Ashton’s thinking.
Joe Worsley, a competent blindside flanker with a good tackle rate, has been named at openside. Again, he does not have the pace in attack and will not get to the breakdown quickly enough to win turnover ball. Perhaps Ashton is looking for backup for Tom Rees – England’s clear first choice in this position, but not selected due to a slight knee injury – but perhaps he should have thought of that when releasing Magnus Lund and Andy Hazell.
Nick Easter at number eight will do a solid, but unremarkable job. The more surprising aspect of this selection is that Lawrence Dallaglio is on the bench. Dallaglio was included in the World Cup party for his experience and leadership abilities, and to provide those qualities for 50 or 60 minutes before making way for an impact player from the bench. Instead, it looks like he is actually being used as that impact player, but this is not sensible – he may give the team a lift in spirits as he runs on, but he doesn’t have the speed to trouble tired defenders in the same way as James Haskell might.
The front five is just big and heavy, and the coach probably has one eye on Samoa and South Africa with this selection. For Simon Shaw and Steve Borthwick in the second row, it could be their last chance to shine, given that Ben Kay and Martin Corry appear to be favoured in this position. Combined with a powerful front row of Andrew Sheridan, Phil Vickery and Mark Regan, the forwards will want to keep the ball tight and dominate in the set pieces. This is at odds though with Ashton’s vision of playing ‘Total Rugby’ and is reminiscent of the early ’90s ten-man rugby England was famous for. This puts a huge question mark over the direction and gameplan that Ashton is trying to employ, and at this late stage it is very worrying.
I will no doubt be watching the game with mixed emotions as well – excitement at new partnerships in the backs, watching people play for their positions, mixed with growing despair as I lose confidence that Ashton knows what he is doing.
By James Hutchison