Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ashton holds the key

The World Champions head towards France with just the impending Six Nations tournament left in which to find some form. With the seasoned alchemist, Ashton, at the helm, it's with a renewed sense of excitement that I look forward to the action of the coming weeks.

Although that's not to say it's not edged with trepidation. Ashton's reputation for transforming stolid performers into thoroughbreds was borne out last season in his work at Bath, where a team who had struggled to cross the try line began to run in score after score - even if it meant racking up, on the face of it, heavy defeats. Whatever the truth in his 'free-thinker' label, Ashton certainly seems able to imbue his players with an elan that allows them to do things they'd before thought impossible; and even if it's as simple as requesting they play with a smile on their faces, as Mike Tindall joked this week, it's certainly a valuable skill.

Someone who may be in need of a confidence shot before the big kick-off against the Scots on Saturday is Johnny Wilkinson. With all the hype and interest that surrounds him, his England comeback more than three years after kicking the points to win the Web Eillis trophy has the potential to be fraught with nerves, even for as experienced a performer as Wilko. The Scots will surely target him early on, to test his resolve as well as his body; but I'd be as confident as Ashton is in throwing him the chance. Over the Autumn, I pondered the options at 5/8, and was presented with some uninspiring options in the face of Charlie Hodgeson's injury, and continued indifferent form. Andy Goode is not, to my mind, an international fly-half, while Olly Barkley seems more likely to make a case for himself at inside centre. Toby Flood and Sean Geraghty are new, and inexperienced, ingredients in the mix, and although they may flower into players of true international pedigree, there is still no one to stand toe-to-toe with Wilkinson. Another serious injury, in such a pressure cooker as Twickenham will surely be, could break England's golden boy - but the mental strength that helps him slot kick after kick, just as its aided him in coming back from successive injuries, will hopefully see him through. Ashton must believe this, else why pick him?

I'm also willing to back his judgement in giving Andy Farrell his Union international bow, as well as excited by the potential the big guy has. Despite some messy exchanges early in the season, as Saracens and the RFU got a bit silly in working out where to play the League convert, he seems to have been producing some sterling performances in the centre in recent weeks, and praise has flowed, beginning with his performance for the World XV last year., and growing steadily louder. Zinzan Brooke shooting his mouth off isn't worth paying heed to, on this occasion.

Yes, tomorrow could be a real tingler. Ashton's the man with the plan, and the mere fact that the turgid performances of Robinson's era are unlikely to be repeated is something to smile about. And if smiling's all we need, boyish Brian's just the man.

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