Ashton plays the blame game to mask glaring deficiencies

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The Independent Online

In horse racing they may point to "the bounce theory", while over in the City they might suggest it has all been a classic example of "the dead cat bounce". So who to side with - those optimists of the turf or those cynics of the pinstripes? In short, was this insipid England victory an understandable reaction to the heroics of seven days previous? Or does it prove that they have as much chance of defending the World Cup as a corpsed Tiddles?

Brian Ashton is obviously certain of the former. But then, Ashton is not about to concede anything yet. Not even to the sceptical voices that must be muttering inside his own head. "I've waited all my life for this opportunity so I am not about to waste it now," he said, sounding like a cross between Rocky Balboa and Shirley Valentine. "We must sort it all out and we will do, because we have to."

With such statements it is easy to see why players and supporters alike so readily warm to England's new coach. On Saturday, he took the sword threatening to hang itself in Damocles-fashion above his boys and thrust it into his own midriff. "Blame me," he declared, for a second-half performance that descended from average to those levels of frustration well below average. "Blame me," for a game plan that instructed them to kick the early possession away. "Blame me," for giving the Italians the taste that a side with any real bite would have devoured without grace.

All very gallant, all very quotable. Indeed, it was a piece of wool-pulling of which even Jose Mourinho might have been proud. But, when the eyes are defluffed and the arguments unthreaded, it is impossible not to see through Ashton's admissions. After all, it was not he who commanded his forwards to fold like foldy things; it was never in his blueprint to punt the ball away aimlessly; just as in "Plan Ashton" it said nothing about surrendering the momentum with the barest resistance. Those are the cold facts from this bleak day.

But are they really that chilly and should the red rose truly be frozen so miserably to its roots? It has already been said a million times since Nigel Owens' whistle, but a win is a win and two wins are two wins and, as Ashton pointed out, the brave new England are probably not too far from where they expected to be this far into their grand mission. "We're slightly behind the progression we would have been looking for at this point," he reasoned. "But we will get there."

How, he did not deign to mention, but it does seem that before the Croke Park choker in a fortnight's time, he will be asking for hands to be put up and for ideas to follow. "It's not in my style to be in their faces," he said. "Maybe I was last week, maybe I did overemphasise things and maybe if I back off a bit now that'll help. There's a number of intelligent rugby brains in there."

He was doubtless thinking of Jonny Wilkinson and perhaps even Andy Farrell, the big codebreaker who, alas, cannot seem to break a line. When quizzed about the embryonic partnership, Ashton's indifference scarcely concealed the glaring creative deficiencies. "It was OK, mixed, they didn't get a lot of ball on the front foot," he said, seemingly searching for any get-out.

In panicky moments like this it is always best to turn to Wilkinson. "Any boss of any national side would love to have Jonny's kicking ability at their disposal as it's very special," he waxed. "If our opponents are happy to give us penalties in their own half ... well, we'll be happy to kick them over."

But what happens when the opponents are palpably not happy to do so? What will the answer be? Is there one? Will there be any life left in this cat, then? Two wins on the bounce and England still don't know.

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