Mixed reaction to Ashton’s squad, but reasons to get excited

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.

The Pack

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.

The midfield

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

5 thoughts on “Mixed reaction to Ashton’s squad, but reasons to get excited

  1. Good article, the squad isn’t as depressing as many believe, especially with the bench impact as you mention. Second row debate – Kennedy is the unluckiest, although Palmer while should be there, can’t into the team at the mo.

    I hear you re Tindell v Hipkiss (who I rate massively) but Hipkiss can’t get into Leicester team at mo. Although why Noon above him no-one knows.

    I would like to hear more Balshaw debate. WHY OH WHY!!!! One good year as you rightly pointed out, he has been useless ever since. Lewsey should be in instead, I just pray he starts Tait and not his bumb buddy from Bath Balsh.

    I/C Wilko/ Cip axis I think it will work. I would like to see Geraghty and Hipkiss in the centre for the Saxons. I think Geraghty could be a useful 12.

    Team I think Brian will pick for the 1st game from his squad: Sunday Sheri, Regan, Vickery. Shaw, Borthwick (Reason Bath only), Haskell, Easter, Moody (I think he will play Haskell at 6 above Rees at 7), Gomars, Wilko, Strettle, Flood, Tind, Sackey, Tait (although I am very concerned re Balshaw getting the nod.)

    Bench – Stevens, Mears. Croft, Worsley. Wigg, Volcano. Cipriani

  2. I can’t say I’m aggrieved at Varndell missing out. I have to confess to not having watched much rugby lately thanks to a 3-week old son, and I know from what I’ve heard that he’s been on fire.

    However, whenever I think of Varndell I’m scarred by images of him running backwards at full-pace to avoid contact against the Aussies down under in summer ’06 (before looking totally embarassed at scoring the easiest of all tries after some great work from the rest of the backs).

    For me the trouble with Varndell is that his club form is built on his ability to ruthlessly exploit the kind of space that is rarely available in internationals.

    I have to say, since the squad was announced the other day I’ve calmed down considerably – once you look at the 6N and Saxons squad as a whole, it’s encouraging to see some of the young players in there, and over time some of these better players will force their way up the pecking order, while others (unless they play at Bath) will be found out and forced out of the side.

  3. Congratulations on the birth of your son Rob, but don’t let it get in the way of your rugby viewing!!

    Varndell has improved his all-round game lately, and is not only seriously rapid but has bulked up considerably – I think his time will come.

    Still disappointed with Ashton’s squad, I think Bob’s 22 is probably the best that can be made from it (less for Regan) and I do believe it could be good enough to win the 6N, but there is still a slightly sour feel to it.

    This year’s competition is wide open and we can really stamp our authority on N Hemisphere rugby by winning. I don’t agree with looking at the overall picture of 1st team and Saxons as a whole. Even if the ridiculously named Saxons complete a grand slam (as they should), England will be judged on the main competition.

  4. I couldn’t give a stuff about 2011 now. The key thing is to get some wins and some confidence so I agree with the principle of what Ashton is doing, even if not with some of the personnel. Revolution never works in international sport, evolution does so let’s bring in the young guys when there’s a feelgood factor in the camp, probably in the autumn. I agree with easing in the likes of Haskell, Croft, Rees now, alongside Shaw, Moody, Sheridan to build a strong pack. Then bring in the young bolters when they have a solid platform from which they can show what they can do.

    My slight concern is that a lot of these old boys might run out of steam at the end of the season and we’ll be left having to blood the youngsters on a 2 test tour of New Zealand (a tour the logic of which completely escapes me). That could be fairly disastrous. Having said that, all the backs apart from Gomersall are young enough to go on for a while so they should all be there and we have good depth in the pack anyway.

    On the Balshaw question, there’s beginning to be a bit of the Steve Harmison about him. Had one sensational year in which he was a world-beater (I was slightly in love with him in 2001) but is mentally fragile, injury prone and has spent the rest of the time being staggeringly average. Yet he still gets picked by successive England coaches while the consistently outstanding James Simpson-Daniel gets overlooked. There must be a reason why everyone picks Balshaw and nobody picks Sinbad but I have no idea what it is.

  5. Well it’s certainly more interesting selection than I anticipated. The forwards I can understand to some extent. Croft deserves his place in the back row, and I can see why Vickery has been picked, despite him being a bit of a veteran. Kay and Shaw should make for a solid second row, if a little unimaginative.

    England are still missing an outstanding Scrum half, one who would be an obvious choice when picking a team. Certainly there’s talent somewhere amongst the squad with regards to inside-halves, but no-one stands out as being perfect. I hope when Harry Ellis returns from injury he quickly returns to form, both from a Leicester and England view-point. He was starting to develop very nicely at an international level (6Nations Vs Scotland last year being a highlight). I can’t see why Danny Hipkiss has been dropped for Noon – I guess it must just be a lack of game time for tigers. I’d have chosen Lewsey in preference to Balshaw too. Tait i think is a fine choice for use as a fullback, as he shows he’s certainly more than capable in the premiership.

    Which leave me finally with the volcano – I’m always suspicious of League converts, but the wings do seem the easiest spaces to slot into. Billy Whizz made it after all!

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