Rugby Union: Rowell safe but Ashton threatens Cusworth

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The Independent Online
England's rugby hierarchy may undergo a significant new year revamp before the Five Nations' Championship kicks off in 10 days' time but, contrary to the scare-mongering stories of last weekend, Jack Rowell's position as coach is secure. The only change under consideration is the introduction of Brian Ashton, the highly respected tactician who ended his seven-year association with Bath on Monday.

Rowell, who brought Ashton to Bath in 1989 and worked closely with him for five years before taking over the England reigns, gave the clearest possible indication yesterday that his old cohort might not need to pay too many visits to his local social security office. Asked if Ashton might join the national set-up in a coaching capacity, he replied: "It's in my mind. I have spoken to Brian unofficially to check his availability because people like him should not be ignored. I rate him very highly and apart from anything else, good backs coaches are thin on the ground."

Although Rowell denied that any approach to Ashton would undermine the position held by Les Cusworth, a backs specialist who also sits on England selection, it was difficult to imagine the former Leicester outside-half greeting the news with cries of unbridled joy. The England threequarter line has not been helped by flawed back row selection this season but their inability to complete even the most basic passing movements in the pre-Christmas pantomime with Argentina left Cusworth fielding plenty of flak.

Bolstered by an unequivocal vote of confidence from the Rugby Football Union secretary Tony Hallett, who comprehensively scotched reports of Rowell's imminent demise, the coach did not talk like a condemned man as he announced a 30-man Five Nations squad at Twickenham. Indeed, he took the bull by the horns on a number of issues, notably the growing trend among First Division clubs of fielding teams containing as few Englishmen as possible.

Acutely aware that home-grown outside-halves, open-side flankers and middle jumpers were becoming more difficult to track down, Rowell urged a rethink on selection policy at club level. "The clubs have their own brief and the regulations allow them to pursue and pick whoever they like," he said. "But it's not uplifting from my point of view to see talented young players signed to clubs who are unlikely to give them a chance. The game in England could eventually be strangled by this."

One player who does have an opportunity as a result of yesterday's squad announcement is Neil Back, the undersized but astonishingly combative Leicester flanker. His performance on the field against Toulouse in last Saturday's Heineken European Cup semi-final so overshadowed his self-pitying outburst off it that the selectors, who urgently require a specialist openside link player to make the team tick, drafted him back after an absence of 18 months.

"Lawrence Dallaglio has been playing open side for us but on the blind side for Wasps and perhaps that has taken away the sharp edge a No 7 needs," Rowell said. "Neil was outstanding against Toulouse and looked back to his best. We need to get the link going and if we can't do that through the big men, we'll just have to look elsewhere."

To that end, the selectors have given themselves three options. They could stick with Dallaglio for the Calcutta Cup match with Scotland on 1 February, switch the Wasps captain to blind side and give Back his sixth full cap or, more adventurously still, award a debut to Richard Hill, the untested Saracens flanker who is significantly bigger than Back but nowhere near as experienced.

Elsewhere, the squad is much as expected. Darren Garforth and Will Greenwood, two more in-form Leicester men, are included; Garforth replaces Victor Ubogu, the Bath prop, while Greenwood was said by Rowell to be a live contender for a midfield place. The logjam in the centre is now even harder to ease, especially as Phil de Glanville, the Bath and England captain, is close to full fitness.

Ubogu joins three of his front-row club-mates - Kevin Yates, John Mallett and Gary French - in a 40-strong England A squad scheduled to play two matches in the space of six hours on 31 January. The first will be against Scotland's second string at Harlequins, the other against the strong Otago province from New Zealand at Bristol.

Despite his chastening experience at the hands of the Argentinians, Rowell was upbeat about England's prospects for a third Five Nations title in succession. "No one was happy with what was achieved against the Pumas, but you have to remember that anyone can have a day when things fail to go to plan. Manchester United have days when they just don't play. So do the All Blacks. What pleased me was that we dogged it out and won the game.

"We are rebuilding a side while changing our style and that is a difficult and painful thing to attempt, but I don't see why we can't get there in the relative short term."

ENGLAND SQUAD FOR FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP

FULL-BACKS: N Beal (Northampton), J Callard (Bath), T Stimpson (Newcastle).

WINGS: J Sleightholme (Bath), T Underwood (Newcastle), A Adebayo (Bath).

CENTRES: W Carling (Harlequins), P de Glanville (Bath), W Greenwood (Leicester), J Guscott (Bath).

STAND-OFFS: M Catt (Bath), A King (Wasps), P Grayson (Northampton).

SCRUM-HALVES: A Gomarsall (Wasps), K Bracken (Saracens).

PROPS: G Rowntree (Leicester), J Leonard (Harlequins), R Hardwick (Coventry), D Garforth (Leicester).

HOOKERS: M Regan (Bristol), P Greening (Gloucester).

LOCKS: M Johnson (Leicester), S Shaw (Bristol), G Archer (Newcastle).

BACK ROW: T Rodber (Northampton), L Dallaglio (Wasps), C Sheasby (Wasps), N Back (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), B Clarke (Richmond).

(Training session at Bisham Abbey on 15 January).

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