Ashton confident his converts will deliver

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton called it a "logical selection" and insisted he would have made precisely the same decisions had England been playing the All Blacks in Auckland on Saturday rather than Scotland at Twickenham. It said a good deal about the new head coach's craving for intelligent rugby players, and even more about the impact made by Andy Farrell in his handful of senior games for Saracens and his occasional appearances at the reigning world champions' training get-togethers.

Farrell, lured across the great divide from league to union the best part of two years ago but only just into his stride as a fully-fledged 15-a-sider after a series of injury hassles, makes his international debut this weekend. If he goes well - and Ashton, a dyed-in-the-wool league aficionado from the same northern neck of the woods, has long rated him a quality act capable of taking to the new code like the proverbial duck to water - he can expect to feature in at least seven of the remaining nine matches leading into the defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy in France this autumn.

"When you consider where we are at the moment, we need a starting point for the team," the coach said yesterday. "I think we've found it. There are certain players I consider capable of taking us to where we need to be in a fairly short time and if they're available now, it's important to get them on the field. Of course, we need to rediscover some old-fashioned English rugby values, but we must do more than that. I want players who bring intelligence, understanding and the right kind of skill-sets to the mix.

"I have no doubt that Andy Farrell is one of those people. He hasn't played a great deal of union - that's a fact. But I won't be asking him to play significantly differently to how he played in rugby league for Wigan or Great Britain. The only thing I needed to know was that Andy himself felt he was playing the union game instinctively. Once I'd clarified that in my own mind, it was a straightforward decision. I don't know if coaches should have gut instincts, but I have one anyway. Having seen Andy and Jason Robinson on the training field, I think they'll spur each other into doing something special."

The two converts go back a long way; indeed, they shared some of the richest experiences rugby league has to offer. "I thought Jason would go all posh on me once he went to union, but he hasn't changed a bit," Farrell said. "What did I feel when he switched codes? I totally understood his decision. He moved at the right time for him; I moved at the right time for me. I was delighted for him when he won his World Cup winners' medal. I remember watching the final at home and being as excited as anyone. I'm very English, very patriotic about my sport - the cricket is killing me at the moment."

On any other day, Robinson's return to national colours after a flirtation with retirement lasting the best part of two years would have been the stuff of headlines. As it was, he found himself playing second fiddle to the all-singing, all-dancing England midfield show, featuring his old mucker from Central Park and a certain Jonny Wilkinson. But Ashton, the man responsible for pulling the three of them together, was as animated by Robinson's return as by developments at Nos 10 and 12.

"Like a lot of the players who went through the World Cup and its aftermath, Jason was tired and needed rest," the coach said. "I'm delighted to see him back. We're playing him in what I consider to be his best position of left wing" - amen to that - "and it excites me to think what he can deliver. It's difficult to know where this team can end up, but when you look at the potential within and around it..."

Robinson acknowledged the accuracy of Ashton's diagnosis of events circa 2005 and shared his optimism about England circa 2007. "There was so much pressure on everyone during and after the World Cup," he said. "To go straight into another season was very hard on the people involved, and they felt it. Simple as that.

"I didn't retire from international rugby because I felt in decline and wanted to bale out - that's not the way I think. Basically, I was tired. Now I've had a couple of decent off-seasons, I feel good. I wouldn't waste my time, let alone anyone else's, if I didn't feel up to this, and when I look at Jonny and Andy, people who dedicate every second of their time to being better players, I can't help but be excited."

* Gareth Thomas has failed in an attempt to delay the disciplinary hearing which threatens to hamper the start of his Six Nations Championship. The former Wales captain faces a misconduct charge after being accused of "aggressive" and "offensive" behaviour towards supporters during Toulouse's Heineken Cup game with Ulster on 21 January.

Six Nations line-ups

SCOTLAND (v England, Twickenham, Saturday, 16.00): H Southwell (Edinburgh); S Lamont (Northampton), M Di Rollo (Edinburgh), A Henderson (Glasgow), C Paterson (Edinburgh, capt); D Parks (Glasgow), C Cusiter; G Kerr (both Borders), D Hall (Edinburgh), E Murray, A Kellock (both Glasgow), J Hamilton (Leicester), S Taylor, D Callam (both Edinburgh), K Brown (Borders).

Replacements: R Ford (Borders), A Jacobsen, S Murray, A Hogg (all Edinburgh), R Lawson (Gloucester), R Dewey (Edinburgh), R Lamont (Glasgow).

FRANCE (v Italy, Rome, Saturday, 13.30): C Poitrenaud; C Heymans, F Fritz, Y Jauzion (all Toulouse), C Dominici; D Skrela (both Stade Français), P Mignoni (Clermont-Auvergne); O Milloud (Bourgoin), R Ibañez (Wasps), P de Villiers (Stade Français), L Nallet (Castres), J Thion, S Betsen (both Biarritz), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin), S Chabal (Sale).

Replacements: D Szarzewski, S Marconnet (both Stade Français), P Pape (Castres), I Harinordoquy, D Yachvili (both Biarritz), L Beauxis (Stade Français), V Clerc (Toulouse).

IRELAND (v Wales, Cardiff, Sunday, 15.00): G Dempsey (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, D Hickie (all Leinster); R O'Gara), P Stringer; M Horan (all Munster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (all Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), D Wallace, D Leamy (both Munster).

Replacements: J Flannery (Munster), S Best, N Best (both Ulster), M O'Driscoll (Munster), I Boss, P Wallace (both Ulster), G Murphy (Leicester).

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