Ashton tweaks his options
March 5, 2008
"I just do not understand where Ashton is coming from. If he had said he was determined to get Cipriani in somewhere I would applaud him all the way but the one thing he does not offer is solidity." Read John Taylor's latest Six Nations verdict
Brian Ashton is obviously a tweaker. Contrary to all previous perceptions he is pretty conservative, not really very bold at all, and I am finding him increasingly enigmatic although I am sure that is not his intention.
Take the selection of Danny Cipriani - 'Iain (Balshaw) has not played as badly as made out but we are looking for more solidity at the rear. Danny brings that as well as other things,' pronounced the England coach after announcing that he was giving the Wasps prodigy his first start against Scotland next Saturday.
'He's certainly got the X-factor. He's an outstanding all-round footballer, is very confident, has got terrific pace and mentally he's ready,' he added to explain what he meant by 'other things.'
Nobody would disagree there but 'more solidity at the rear'? Are you sure?
If that was his main objective he would surely have had to go for Josh Lewsey. The man who is currently first choice fullback at Wasps might be a difficult customer - there is anecdotal evidence emerging that his fall from favour is because he is not Mr Popularity after criticising fellow players and coaches during the World Cup - but he offers immense experience and is right back at the top of his game.
In contrast Cipriani has looked less than assured when he has come on as a replacement for his two caps so far - a total of 29 minutes of international rugby.
Jonny Wilkinson's wild and wayward pass when he entered the fray against Wales was hardly the introduction he would have chosen so we'll forgive him on that occasion but he wanted far too long to kick when Simon Picone charged him down and scored in the Italy match.
Don't get me wrong - as I wrote in this column a couple of months ago after he had made a wonderful try against Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup - I am a huge Cipriani fan.
I just do not understand where Ashton is coming from. If he had said he was determined to get Cipriani in somewhere I would applaud him all the way but the one thing (perhaps the only thing) he does not offer is solidity.
That said he has all the other talents needed to become a devastating attacking fullback and I can fully understand Ashton wanting to get him on the field for a full 80 minutes so that he does get a chance to settle.
Ashton obviously sees his fullback as one of his most potent attackers - hence the stubborn faith in Balshaw who was a revelation in his first season - and Cipriani does also have a powerful kicking game so it could prove an inspired selection even if his thinking is flawed.
He will certainly not get much game time understudying Wilkinson for the forseeable future. Our Jonny has once again made himself indispensable to England.
The kicking might not be quite as reliable as in 2003 but apart from that moment of madness against Wales his passing game is better than ever and it is no surprise that he has created the only properly constructed tries from the backs in the Championship so far.
His crossfield kick to Lesley Vainikolo made Toby Flood's try against Wales and that little chip and re-gather followed by the deftest of reverse passes to Paul Sackey against Italy was a joy.
But Ashton must still be worried about England's inability to break down opposition defences with ball in hand once it goes beyond the half-backs.
In their last 10 matches they have scored 17 tries but 11 of those were against the USA, Samoa and Tonga in the World Cup.
They failed to score a try against South Africa - twice - and Australia and the only one they managed in the knockout stages was in the semi-final against France when Lewsey pounced on Damien Traille's fumble.
The other three in this season's Six Nations have come from a Jamie Noon charge down, his tackle on Cedric Heymans, which was actually a knock-on, and the forward rumble finished off by Richard Wigglesworth.
In contrast the Welsh outside backs have scored 10 in their three matches so far.
I still believe England need an outside centre who can break the line given half a yard but they can hardly drop Noon when he has 'created' two of their five tries by aggressive defence.
However, Ashton does seem to be edging his way towards a more dynamic England team. There is far more pace in the back-row, Lee Mears offers more than Mark Regan with ball in hand and, against France, Phil Vickery and Andrew Sheridan were making hard yards.
With a couple more tweaks he might be there even if he does talk a load of nonsense about 'solidity at the rear.'