Another weekend in the Six Nations has passed, and England currently sit at the top of the table. They have three wins from three games and whispers of ‘Grand Slam’ have progressively become louder. It is perhaps therefore surprising that clamours for a certain player to be dropped have also been getting louder, despite the old adage of ‘never changing a winning team’.
Head coach Stuart Lancaster took the England job (officially) back in March of last year, despite not having the experience or reputation that many others linked with the vacancy had in abundance. His policy of picking players based on their form, and not their reputation, which coincidentally the RFU also displayed in his hiring, won plaudits from both the fans and the media.
There have been few, if any, complaints about the way Lancaster has led this developing England team over the last year, but the continued selection of Saracens winger Chris Ashton, despite fairly ineffective performances for England in recent games, has begun to raise questions. An in-form Ashton is a truly daunting prospect. He runs some of the best lines in the Northern Hemisphere, and his instincts often bring him off of the wing and into play earlier, usually to devastating effect. His defence is also solid, and he certainly competes with the likes of Tommy Bowe and George North for the mantle of the best winger in the Northern Hemisphere.
Unfortunately, we haven’t seen this side of Ashton in some time, and instead we’ve seen him playing tentatively defensively and rarely venturing from his spot on the wing where, in the Northern Hemisphere, it can be easy to become excluded from the game.
Indeed, it seems as if Lancaster’s patience has also been tested by Ashton’s recent form, with the England coach suggesting that he may drop Ashton for the upcoming against Italy, citing that “there are areas of his game he’s got to work on.” This then raises the inevitable question, who can step in and perform for England?
The long-term future of the position seems to certainly lie in the hands of Christian Wade and Jonny May. Both players have electric pace, making them devastating in open space, but more importantly their ability to change pace and direction seemingly instantly allows them to create space for themselves. In this respect, both players are reminiscent of a developing Jason Robinson. They are, however, still developing themselves, and despite their defensive skills improving greatly this season, they could still be exposed defensively by the physically imposing Welsh pairing of Alex Cuthbert and North.
Similarly, Marland Yarde of London Irish, who enjoyed a very good game against London Wasps at the weekend, is an extremely exciting attacking talent but is not in any of the England squads, making a call-up in the near future fairly improbable. Charlie Sharples, Tom Biggs and David Strettle are other names which have been mooted as a solution, and all three certainly display a flair for attacking rugby. They are also solid in defence and would certainly not be considered defensive liabilities at the international level, but with that being said, an international winger should be able to both attack and defend exceptionally.
There are two names, then, that are ready to make a claim for Ashton’s spot: Tom Varndell and Ugo Monye. Outside of an in-form Ashton, these two are arguably the most complete English wingers currently playing, especially when you consider Mike Brown is still developing into the position at the international level. Varndell is currently in the form of his life, leading the Premiership in tries, with 11 to his name, and his physicality in defence is rarely questioned (although is technique can be slightly suspect). Similarly, Monye is a very solid in defence, not to mention his unparalleled skill under the high ball, and has all the physical and mental skills to excel offensively.
It is doubtful Lancaster will want to make too many changes to his winning team, but it looks as though there is a chance Ashton could find himself on the bench, or dropped from the squad entirely, when England welcome Italy to Twickenham. With Varndell not included in the EPS (Senior or Saxons) his call-up would certainly be a surprise, and providing Lancaster doesn’t move Manu Tuilagi out to the wing, which he has suggested is a possibility, the door is certainly open for Monye to stake a claim for a shirt he has consistently flirted with throughout his career.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)