Ashton fast tracks Morgan the sports car full-back into the fray

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton openly admitted that the team he picked for this afternoon's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland had no history. It may never get the chance to create any as it turns out, for it has already changed. Iain Balshaw's groin injury, suffered in training on Wednesday, was stubbornly refusing to respond to treatment when the world champions gathered at Twickenham for yesterday's fine-tuning session, so his colleague and rival at Gloucester, Olly Morgan, will win his first cap at full-back.

There are good omens for Ashton here. Sir Clive Woodward also blooded a West Country-based No 15 from Millfield School in his first game as England head coach, and we all know what happened to his coaching career seven years later. What is more, young Master Morgan has more than a touch of the Matt Perrys about him. If he turns out to be 75 per cent of the player Perry was in his pomp, Ashton will have struck gold. For all the thrill-a-minute contributions of Balshaw and Jason Robinson and Josh Lewsey, Perry remains the finest red-rose full-back of the modern era.

Morgan has 38 senior appearances for Gloucester, which makes him more than three times as experienced a union player as Andy Farrell, the former Great Britain rugby league captain who also makes his debut today. It is safe to say, however, that there has been less of a kerfuffle about the 21-year-old Londoner. He caught the eye towards the end of last season as the Kingsholm hierarchy fast-tracked him into their team alongside the likes of Ryan Lamb and Anthony Allen, but shoulder problems have rather cramped his style this term. Compared with Farrell, he borders on the anonymous.

Ashton knows him well, though, having worked with him during his time as national academy manager - his last job but two. "One of the key things is that Olly has been a full-back all his life," the coach said. "He's not a converted anything. I'm not being disparaging when I say he has the traditional values of an old-fashioned No 15, because those values are very important, not least in a game like this one. He has excellent judgement when opponents kick the ball to him, and he knows when to hit the attacking line."

Had Ashton considered other options, rather than pulling Morgan out of last night's A international with Italy and dropping him in at the deep end? After all, he could easily have switched Lewsey or Robinson to full-back and promoted Mathew Tait to one of the wing positions.

"It didn't cross my mind," he replied. "I'm trying to pursue a philosophy of picking the best available players in their best positions. It's not always possible, but on this occasion I'm able to do it. I was very impressed by Olly when he trained with the Test squad before last autumn's Test series. But for his injury, he'd have been very close to starting then."

Not to put too fine a point on it, Morgan can count his blessings. Allen, with whom he shared close educational and sporting ties at Millfield, was given his opportunity in November - against the All Blacks, no less - and found himself unceremoniously dumped after two matches. A debut against a Scotland back division posing little obvious line-breaking threat in midfield is a whole lot different to staring Daniel Carter and Aaron Mauger in the eyeballs.

"Actually, Anthony set me a text message when he heard my news," Morgan said. "He told me to enjoy the experience, because these opportunities don't come around often and they're over a lot quicker than you think."

Is it not ironic that he should be replacing Balshaw, with whom he fights for the No 15 jersey at Kingsholm. "For most of the season, one or other of us has been injured," he responded. "And anyway, we have a rotation system in operation; if I play at full-back, Iain moves to the wing. I'm sorry for him, of course, but I'm excited too. This is a dream."

If they have anything about them at all - and they have rather more than many people think in an understated, make-do-and-mend kind of way - the Scots will target Morgan heavily today. Ashton is not losing sleep over this particular issue, however. He has far too much on his plate to worry about a single individual, having put together new combinations in every department of the side.

"I'm edgier now than at any time during the build-up," the coach said. "Perhaps that has something to do with being in London. I shifted the training to Bath partly to get away from this part of the world, and I think it worked. Certainly, I couldn't have asked for a better input from the players. Now we're in a hotel 15 minutes away from the stadium, the nerves are beginning to jangle. That's a good thing in some respects, but there is a lot of uncertainty as to what this team will produce. I'm sure in my own mind in terms of where the team can go. The question is, how fast can they get there?"

In Ashton's view, the Scots are travelling with victory in mind. "I would be, if I was in their shoes," he said. But the odds are stacked in favour of an English win, despite the fact that some of the team would struggle to recognise each other if they were sitting on the same sofa.

The world champions have had a desperate run, parts of it soaked in misfortune. On the basis that worms turn and luck changes, not to mention Scotland's miserable record at Twickenham, there is no reason to doubt that Ashton will sleep more easily tonight than he did last night. Apart from anything else, he has Jonny Wilkinson back between the shafts. The greatest goal-kicker ever to take aim at a set of rugby posts was out there on the greensward yesterday, crouching over the ball like a man suffering from acute dysentry before bisecting the sticks with complete precision.

The Scots will try to rough him up - it would be rude of them not to - but it will be a double-edged sword, even if they succeed. No player in the history of the game has dragged himself off the floor to kick three points with such unerring accuracy and murderous regularity. It will be good to see him again, even if his selection has a whiff of desperation about it.

It could have been Olly hockey sticks

Like one or two other half-decent rugby players - Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams spring to mind - Olly Morgan was educated at Millfield School. He excelled at hockey and athletics as well and in his early teens thought long and hard about making hockey his game of choice. But rugby won the day - a decision popularly received in the Morgan family, which boasts a splash or two of Welsh blood and a couple of Oxford Blues.

Following directly in the footsteps of his father Paul, he won England age-group honours, representing his country at Under-16 and U19 levels, as well as turning out for the Young England Sevens team in 2004. He made his debut for the U21s against Wales a year later and was selected for the world championship in Argentina.

A broken ankle in the opening round of the 2006 U21 Six Nations interrupted his progress, but last season he was first-choice full-back at Kingsholm for much of the campaign, making a dozen appearances in the Guinness Premiership and playing most games in the European Challenge Cup, which Gloucester won. After a surprise call-up to an injury-ravaged England squad for the autumn Tests, he impressed the coaching team so much that he was close to selection to face New Zealand before injury stopped him making the cut.

"Olly is one of a group of young players coming through at Gloucester and doing really well," said Dean Ryan, the director of rugby at Kingsholm, yesterday. "Off the back of that, he has grasped his chance to move into the senior England environment. I have every confidence he will do himself justice."

Six Nations fixtures

TODAY

Italy v France 1.30pm
England v Scotland 4pm

TOMORROW

Wales v Ireland 3pm

SAT 10 FEB

England v Italy 1.30pm
Scotland v Wales 3.30pm

SUN 11 FEB

Ireland v France 3pm

SAT 24 FEB

Scotland v Italy 3pm
Ireland v England 5.30pm
France v Wales 8pm

SAT 10 MARCH

Scotland v Ireland 1.30pm
Italy v Wales 3.30pm

SUN 11 MARCH

England v France 3pm

SAT 17 MARCH

Italy v Ireland 1.30pm
France v Scotland 3.30pm
Wales v England 5.30pm

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