A quick scour of the message boards in rugby cyberspace reveals a less than positive reaction to Brian Ashton’s first post-World Cup squad. Those who bandied around phrases like ‘fresh start’ and ‘new era’ in recent weeks have been disappointed with the selection.
Mind you they will not have been half as disappointed as some of the individuals who find themselves on the outside. Magnus Lund, James Simpson-Daniel, Dan Hipkiss and Josh Lewsey could all be forgiven for doing a large double-take when the squad was announced.
In the forwards, Lund can count himself unlucky to have been omitted in spite of good recent form, and Tom Palmer must be wondering quite why the terminally disappointing Steve Borthwick has been adjudged a superior player. Indeed in the absence of Palmer and Nick Kennedy, the Premiership’s leading line out forward, and with the exception of Simon Shaw, the second row has a distinctly pedestrian look to it.
It should be hoped that Lewis Moody is handed the 6 shirt so he can be his usual completely mental self without being restricted by the discipline required from an openside. This would give Tom Rees the chance to make the 7 shirt his own. I suspect Easter will start at 8 with Haskell on the bench although personally I would like to see the Wasps man awarded a start in what would be a seriously dynamic back row. Tom Croft has the potential to make a significant impact from the bench.
It is the backs selection which has caused the most gnashing of teeth among the England rugby faithful and certain questions do present themselves. On what level is Jamie Noon a better player than Dan Hipkiss? And surely Ashton is not going to do an Andy Robinson and pair Noon and Tindall in the centres – probably the greatest of Robinson’s selection nightmares, and that is saying something.
Staying with the centres, many pundits have called for Tindall to be installed as captain (including the entire Sunday Times panel, one of whom wants to play him at 12, a move which would lead to my immediate emigration). Although he has been playing better of late than for a long time, I am beginning to suspect that Tindall has attributes not immediately apparent to the layman as nobody I have spoken to seems to rate him. A Flood-Tindall centre partnership has a nice balance to it but Hipkiss has the physical attributes as well as a step and hands which are superior to Tindall’s. While Tindall may create space for others with his sheer physicality, there must be question marks over whether he possesses the basic skills to take advantage of this. I hope to be proved wrong.
In the absence of Olly Barkley and Antony Allen, Toby Flood appears to be a shoo-in at 12 with Jonny Wilkinson at 10 and Cipriani coming off the bench. I am a fan of the concept of having 2 playmakers at 10 and 12 but it requires the 10 to play flat and the 12 to have a marginally greater degree of physicality and dynamism.
Sadly, England have nobody of the calibre of Riki Flutey or Luke McAlister so compromise is required. But from the criteria outlined above, one rather strangely finds oneself drawn towards a combination of Hodgson or Cipriani (both of whom play flatter and get the backs going better than Wilkinson) at 10, and Wilkinson (who is comfortably the best tackler of the group and lends invaluable experience) at 12. Of course this will not happen for now and Ashton should avoid playing people out of position, but there is a strong case for it. Alternatively, England could adopt the approach beloved of New Zealand and Australia and groom their next 10 in the inside centre position before moving him across when he’s ready. I would favour Cipriani running the show at 10 with Wilkinson looking after him alongside.
The Back Three
The most controversial selections are in the back three. The selection of Lesley Vainokolo has grabbed the headlines and, while he maybe should be given more time to bed in, I’m quite keen to see the expression on Shane Williams’ face when Big Les trots on at HQ after 60 minutes foaming at the mouth. Elsewhere Ashton has made some fairly strange calls. He has chosen to marry youth with some experienced heads but in the latter camp, surely Josh Lewsey who had an excellent World Cup, offers considerably more than Mark Cueto who didn’t. Surely the experiment of Cueto at full back is not to be recommenced.
Full back remains a problem position. Mathew Tait showed great promise in the World Cup final but is still vastly inexperienced in such a specialist position. The only alternative is Ian Balshaw who to me still looks like a converted winger. Balshaw rarely changes the angle of play, preferring to be on the end of wide passes in the channel beyond the outside centre, just like a winger. He was sensational under Ashton’s tutelage in 2001 but he had the pleasure of being on the end of Mike Catt’s peerless distribution. He will not receive ball of that quality from those inside him now. Tait did actually show a propensity to change the angle in the World Cup final. He also has a sound kicking game, is looking increasingly solid and hopefully will be handed the shirt.
The Premiership is littered with exciting talent in the back 3 and with the likes of Chris Ashton, Nick Abendanon and Tom Varndell in the Saxons squad, the future looks good. Only the latter of these 3 can justifiably feel hard done by, and even he not nearly as much as James Simpson-Daniel. He is one of the most rounded talents in the Premiership and, with his perceived defensive frailties long-since erased, must be wondering what on earth he needs to do to get into the squad. Having said that, the prospect of Sackey and Strettle on the wings is an enticing one, but Simpson-Daniel would surely have had plenty to add.
Finally, it will be intriguing to see how Ashton uses his bench. England have never been good at this but now have some real game-changers in the squad. Imagine the impact that could be made when Stevens, Croft, Cipriani and Vainokolo lace up their boots in the second half. There are plenty of reasons for disagreeing with some of Ashton’s individual decisions. But there are also plenty of reasons to get excited.
By Stuart Peel