Ashton backs the 'massive potential' of Varndell

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The Independent Online

No panic, then. Twenty-four hours after changing half their starting combination for tomorrow's decisive Cook Cup Test against Australia - it may have slipped the minds of those poor red-rose followers who suffered every last grisly moment of the Six Nations collapse in March that England actually hold the trophy as a result of their victory over the Wallabies at Twickenham last November - the tourists' back-room staff were going out of their way to talk up the chances of a surprise twist in the tale.

The switching of seven personnel as a result of events in Sydney last weekend may have sent a forest of eyebrows zooming in a northerly direction, but for the fact that Andy Robinson, the head coach, ditched eight players after the defeat in Paris last March. Even so, it seemed a big clear-out. Was this not a telling sign of rampant knee-jerkism among the selectors?

"Not at all," said Brian Ashton, the England attack coach, yesterday. "We came here with a clear need to look at different players, which we're doing. What is more, I don't believe the changes weaken our side in any way, shape or form."

And Olly Barkley? Ashton likes Barkley. How did he rationalise the decision to drop the Bath midfielder to the bench and go in with Andy Goode, the more prosaic Leicester outside-half, and Mike Catt, the more wrinkled London Irish centre, instead? "This is a young back division, so Mike's experience is important," he replied. "As for Andy, I consider him to be a confident player. The thing I most noticed about him when we worked together at England A level was his willingness to try different things."

Ashton was excellent value as he cast his eye over the runners and riders for a game that could leave the world champions on the painful end of a five-match losing run for the first time since 1984, when Peter Wheeler's team yielded to France and Wales in the Five Nations Championship, John Scott's tourists were mashed twice by the Springboks on the summer tour and Nigel Melville's new-look side finished a distant second to Andrew Slack's ground-breaking Wallabies the following November. He may have done a fair bit of classroom teaching in his time, but the coach considers this sort of history to be bunk.

He was quick to agree with Robinson's assessment of Iain Balshaw, in the full-back role once again after a depressing run of injury hassles, as the best No 15 available to England - a view that will certainly interest, and possibly alarm, the non-touring Josh Lewsey of Wasps. He was also keen to defend Tom Varndell, the young Leicester wing, from the widespread perception that while blinding pace is a priceless commodity, it is no insurance against a lack of footballing nous. Or, indeed, any breakdown in the fundamental skills of catching and passing.

"I believe Tom has massive potential as an international player," he insisted. "He's the first to admit there are areas of his game that need improvement, but, then again, he's 19 years of age. He had opportunities to score in Sydney and made wrong decisions, but I put that down to the excitement he felt at finding himself in open space on his first start in a Test match. The mind can play tricks on a young player in those circumstances. We've talked about it. If the same opportunities arise in this match, it will be a different story."

As ever, Ashton's glass was of the half-full variety. He cheerfully responded to the criticisms of the Wallaby defence coach, John Muggleton, who accused England of playing a simplistic "one-out" style of attacking rugby, by saying: "Was that the simple one-out stuff that put Varndell clean away three times? I don't believe I have much else to say on that point." So there.