Prior to the Six Nations the idea of dropping Chris Ashton and Ben Foden would have seemed preposterous. But three games into this year’s Six Nations championship and with two weeks to prepare before facing France in Paris, England’s back three has been blunt and needs sharpening up.
The issue with Foden is that while his work rate is as good as ever, he is failing to get beyond the first tackler with each return of the ball from deep. Line breaks have proven rare for England so far in the Lancaster era, with just four in three games, but Foden and Ashton are supposed to be the men to create those chances. Add to that Foden’s lack of tries for England, two in his last 12 matches, plus his nightmare five minutes in Rome and the heat is certainly on his back.
Ashton however is a different matter. Whilst Foden’s problems are stemming not from a lack of desire or hard work, Ashton’s seem more psychological. Twice against Wales he found himself in one on one situations on the left with space in which to work between him and the touchline. Both times he refused to back himself, cutting inside and immediately being tackled rather than attempting to create a chance. Those two moments aside, perhaps overwhelmed by the task of handling George North, he was anonymous and not for the first time in this year’s Six Nations. Famed for his involvement coming infield off his wing, his absence has been a concern.
Looking back through his career with England so far, 11 of his 15 tries have come against teams ranked outside the IRB’s top ten. It raises the question whether in the big games Ashton has the temperament to handle the pressure. There are braces against Australia in 2010 and Wales in 2011 to support his case, but blanks against France in the RWC quarter-final, against Ireland in the Grand Slam loss last March and if you’re being very harsh, on debut against France in Paris two years ago when a key chance was squandered, all working against him. A try can transform a winger’s confidence, but fail to score against France next weekend and Ashton will level his longest drought of five international matches without crossing the line.
The duo’s experience though works in their favour. England have changed such a large number of personnel over the last month that to reduce that number of caps even further, especially in the tournament’s hardest fixture away in Paris, would seem a gamble too far. England might be looking to remodel themselves but wins matter as well as development. With the Rugby World Cup seedings to be decided at the end of the year, England have nine matches to break back into the top four of the IRB Rankings and avoid facing the SANZAR nations and Wales or France. Wins also matter to Stuart Lancaster, if he is to be employed in the role full time.
That being said, Lancaster has not been afraid to address the areas where players are not performing or systems are failing to function; such as Phil Dowson, Ben Youngs and at outside centre. There will no doubt be a temptation to try Charlie Sharples and Mike Brown in 14 and 15 roles in training this week, but it is not the ideal solution. That lies in Ashton and Foden rediscovering their spark in attack, following Dave Strettle’s example, because England need them back at their best.
by Ben Coles