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Stephen Jones...Definitely Unbalanced....

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    Stephen Jones...Definitely Unbalanced....

    More Musings From The Learned One.............

    Is there no end to the optimism ?...........

    <t></t><table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465"><t><tr><td><t></t><table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465"><t><tr><td valign="top"><t></t><table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465"><t><tr><td align="left" valign="top">@@@@SPAN>The Sunday Times@@@@/SPAN></td>

    <td align="right" valign="top">@@@@SPAN>January 07, 2007@@@@/SPAN></td>

    <h1>Ashton puts faith in the tried and tested</h1>

    @@@@SPAN>Stephen Jones@@@@/SPAN>

    <h3>Brian Ashton has swapped all-out attack for power, and youth for experience - but England still have problems ahead</h3> </td>
    <td height="5"></td>
    <t></t><table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465">
    <td valign="top"><div>Well,
    I can’t complain. I asked that Brian Ashton restore the (betrayed)
    heritage of England as a power rugby nation and that they stop drafting
    overgrown schoolboys whose qualification for the harshness of Test
    rugby was apparently that they had played two good Premiership games
    without bursting into tears. Power, and experience, equals revival. We
    want men who shave twice a day.

    What did we get in the full England squad and the
    (preposterously-named) England Saxons squad, both announced by Ashton
    last week as the first public act of his tenure? Big blokes and
    physicality for one thing, with the captaincy invested in Phil Vickery,
    the massive, battered foundation stone. And also a fair sprinkling of
    fine sporting codgers, among them Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell and Mike
    Catt. Marvellous. It is as if Ashton set out to deny in one leap his
    supposed predilection for youth and risky attack.

    We will come to the
    reservations later, but in terms of selection at least you feel Ashton
    is on the right lines. Let’s look at one example. It seems that because
    of injuries to Jonny Wilkinson and Charlie Hodgson, young Toby Flood of
    Newcastle will be at fly-half for the opening match of the 2007 RBS Six
    Nations, against Scotland. (The fixtures god wears a red rose. If you
    have been struggling dreadfully, then you want Scotland and then Italy
    first up, both at Twickenham.) Back to our Toby. He’s not ideal, yet.
    He can play. He’s improving. He will be very good. But as we found when
    he gave away a try against Argentina after arriving as a replacement,
    he is critically inexperienced. So who would Flood himself, and every
    England supporter, want around him? The kind of back division England
    chose for the autumn, with tyros, undersized touch players and odd
    combinations dotted all over? Or one in which Flood is surrounded by
    some or all of Josh Lewsey, Mike Tindall, Catt, Robinson, even Farrell.
    These are hard-headed people who can look after him, not people in the
    same potential pickle. All, correctly, are in Ashton’s squad.

    Perhaps the best example of an Ashton investment in power at
    the expense of frippery lies in the selection of the gigantic Steve
    Thompson, the hooker. In the autumn, with Thompson injured yet also
    floundering, hooking duties were shared between Lee Mears and George
    Chuter. Both were fine but very far from dominant.

    Chuter is not physically powerful enough to dominate a Test
    match, Mears is seen as a superb darting, running hooker — but I am
    afraid that I can laud a running hooker only after he has blasted the
    opposition up front, something Mears is simply not equipped to do.

    When Thompson was building up for the 2003 World Cup, he was
    well on the way to being the greatest hooker in England rugby history
    and was already the best hoo

    <table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465"><t><tr><td><table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465"><t><tr><td valign="top"><table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465"><t><tr><td align="left" valign="top">@@@@SPAN ="date">The Sunday Times@@@@/SPAN></td>

    <td align="right" valign="top">@@@@SPAN ="date">January 07, 2007@@@@/SPAN></td>

    <h1>Farrell can answer coach's prayers at No 12</h1>

    @@@@SPAN ="byline">Stephen Jones @@@@/SPAN>

    <h3>The league convert has the strength and subtlety needed for England’s problem spot</h3> </td>
    <td height="5"></td>
    <table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465">
    <td valign="top"><div ="textcopy">IN
    AN eight-minute spell on New Year’s Day, Andy Farrell became a serious
    contender for the hugely problematic England inside-centre position.
    Playing for Saracens against Leicester, he indicated that he might be
    the nearest thing England has to the Brian Ashton template for a No 12.

    A lineout in the second half; Saracens win quick ball and the
    former Wigan loose forward threatens with a rumbling run towards the
    fly-half. At the last moment the former Great Britain rugby league
    stand-off (that’s fly-half in English union language) flicks a delicate
    pass inside and the gain-line is breached — strong man, soft hands.
    Eight minutes later and Farrell takes the ball as first receiver,
    hammering hard at the gain-line. The Tigers midfield, for a split
    second, is held in check by the physical threat. A split second is
    sufficient for the few Englishmen to whom the basic skills of running
    angles and passing are not an arcane mystery. In the moment of
    hesitation, Farrell fizzes a flat pass that outflanks the centres and
    sends full-back Thomas Castaignède into a gaping hole.

    Those two actions,
    neither jaw-dropping moments of brilliance, are enough to suggest
    Farrell could be the next England inside-centre. Today Ashton will be
    in Reading, where — subject to a morning pitch inspection — the league
    legend faces London Irish, though not his direct rival for the No 12
    jersey, Mike Catt. If he can repeat or build on his solid performance
    on New Year’s Day, he is a probable to face Scotland on February 3.

    If not now, when? The state of the national side is such that
    Ashton has to twist and gamble, and Farrell, in the position Ashton
    regards as seminal to the shape of the back-line, is the likeliest
    risk. But it is a risk worth taking because he is probably the only
    Englishman with the range of skills and physical attributes to fill the
    trouble spot with success; both Jamie Noon and Mike Tindall have
    battered from 12 into the opposition ranks in recent years, but neither
    possessed the passing skills to threaten inside and destroy out wide
    with the flick of a wrist. Catt has the requisite passing game but at
    35 his waning speed counts against him at Test level.

    Lacking the size of Farrell, Catt cannot threaten the inside
    backs. In the past it was his speed, allied with his clever angles,
    that caused problems. In the Premiership he remains an outstanding
    centre but against the best that Test rugby has to offer the diminution
    in his raw pace leaves him exposed, as was revealed in Australia last

    A passing game without an individual threat is not the answer
    to Ashton’s prayers. Nor is a powerful runner who can fix a defence but
    cannot open them with a pass. Farrell, in just two second-half moments
    at Leicester, showed his credentials for that position with both

    It is an indictment of the English game to have so few rounded
    inside-centres but that is where we


      <table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465"><t><tr><td><table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465"><t><tr><td valign="top"><table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465"><t><tr><td align="left" valign="top">@@@@SPAN ="date">The Sunday Times@@@@/SPAN></td>

      <td align="right" valign="top">@@@@SPAN ="date">January 07, 2007@@@@/SPAN></td>

      <h1>Vickery will lead from front</h1>

      @@@@SPAN ="byline">Stephen Jones@@@@/SPAN>

      <h3>The new England captain is the ideal choice and not the one-dimensional figure he appears</h3> </td>
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      <table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="465">
      <td valign="top"><div ="textcopy">IT
      SEEMED that Brian Ashton had two strong contenders for the England
      captaincy: Phil Vickery and Josh Lewsey. At first sight, the contrast
      seems profound. You have a front-on, fierce West Country giant and a
      more reserved, even refined, Wasps back. Yet things are not always what
      they seem.

      If prayers for the well-being of Vickery are answered, then he
      will win his 50th cap for his country against Scotland on February 3,
      so giving him two reasons to lead the team onto the field. It will be a
      year almost to the day since he said, in this newspaper: “I won’t go
      chasing something that is not there.”

      Now he is chasing
      England’s rugby revival and is well equipped to do so. But a year ago
      he was referring to the prospect of ever returning to the field. He was
      speaking after his third back operation. And at the time he put a
      resumption of his career below the prospect of holding his infant
      daughter in later life, without the danger of dropping her.

      It is too easy and wholly inaccurate to see Vickery as some
      one-dimensional Cornish bludger. He is a wonderfully inspiring figure,
      a superb prop and leader. But you always sense that there is an emotion
      bubbling just below the surface. I recall interviewing him during one
      of his eight protracted absences from the sport. He was nursing a
      hairline fracture of his hand. The pain was obvious, there was even a
      misting of Vickery eyes as he contemplated yet another burst of

      “Phil has this tough exterior but you always feel that there
      is a lot more going on in there,” said a fellow England player. He
      wished for anonymity not because he is afraid to broadcast his own
      views but because he did not want to be seen as ingratiating to Vickery
      at a time when his support could be construed as self-serving. “He is
      not a typical prop. He is clever, he can be emotional and he can be