A moment to savour
November 16, 2010
Chris Ashton beats Drew Mitchell to score at Twickenham © Getty Images
It is in the nature of this column to take a metaphorical step back and look for trends, or chew over the issue of the day, while avoiding any jerks of the knee. More of that kind of stuff will follow but forgive for me living in the moment - or a moment - to begin with.
The sheer blood-stirring rush of watching Chris Ashton's length of the field try unfold at Twickenham last weekend will stay with me for a while and that would have been the same if I had never got to see it again (about a dozen replays and counting, already) on television and websites. The moment when Ashton veered inside Drew Mitchell, and the possibility of a score became a certainty, had immediacy and a sense of history wrapped up in one special bundle.
For me, there was the added personal pleasure of having enjoyed Ashton's rugby since I saw him score two tries for Northampton against Bedford midway through his club's recent season in the second division, in 2007-08. I wrote then that he should be fast-tracked through the England set-up -but it is Ashton's success not any self-satisfied back-slapping that brings a smile. I like the way he plays and the way he carries himself off the field.
Not being a follower of rugby league, I was new to Ashton's style back in January 2008; he has since told me he copied his habit of tracking the ball from Shaun Edwards, his illustrious predecessor as a Wigan rugby league representative.
Ashton also said that many union wings are too busy watching what's going on to do what he does - an example of his customary candour, and he does seem one of those inspiring sporting animals prepared to both do and say what he means. After the win over Australia graced by the try mentioned above and another from good, close support play, England can be thankful he did not persist with any attempt to emulate Edwards's extraordinary 13-a-side feats; instead he crossed codes in summer 2007 (with the catcalls of hacked-off Wiganers in his ears) and here he is being toasted by the champagne set at Twickenham. Fun, isn't it?
To tone down the breathlessness, now, there were two bits of body language during the Wallaby match which gave more clues to the state of England's work in progress. Both involved Ben Youngs. One was when he was waiting for the ball behind a maul in his 22. He got bumped about and the ball did not arrive immediately but he calmly adjusted his feet and leaned on his forwards with a relaxed demeanour, like someone queuing for a cup of tea in the staff canteen, before executing a perfect box-kick.
At the other end of the field, when Matt Giteau killed the ball and went to the sin-bin, Youngs stamped his feet and was shoved in the chest by an angry Will Genia. Many a scrum-half of a more volcanic nature would have shoved back and let rip with a few verbals, at the risk of the penalty being overturned. Youngs just stood there and let Genia do what he had to do. 'You go ahead, Will, we've got the penalty, you're down to 14 men, thanks very much, chum'. That presence of mind was as much Test quality as Youngs' pass, pace and attack-minded decision-minding.
It was Youngs' try from a line-out - against South Africa in the Junior World Championship in 2009, not Australia earlier this year - which announced his international promise. Ashton's rugby league exploits were enough for Northampton to sign him when he was 20. Now Martin Johnson's England are enjoying the benefits, so what's next for these exciting and likeable young players?
The dearth of completed scrums last weekend may not worry England if they can continue selecting the current pack which - most notably and upliftingly in the second-row - looks good in the tight and the loose. However, France or Wales will be mad-keen to blow that theory apart at the scrum in the new year. It must be said, also, that Australia played into England's hands, refusing to change tactics when it became clear that Lewis Moody's side were having one of their best days in living memory at securing quick possession after the tackle (a theme of the previous column in this slot). Opponents may come along - in the next fortnight, even - with a better plan to slow down England's new-found speed away from the breakdown.
Another area to work on was highlighted a week earlier by the All Blacks. They spent the first 20 minutes outthinking England's midfield and hammering down Ashton's wing - Johnson, of course, having reversed last season's bizarre deployment of Ashton on the left and Mark Cueto on the right - to the tune of two tries and a couple of near misses. So in attack and defence England have plenty to think about, beyond the euphoria of one fine try and two young men giving us cause to revel in the moment. These are, nevertheless, good places to start.
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