Brian Ashton has rather less than a fortnight to identify the 30-odd players he feels will make the best fist of the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, which England, the beaten World Cup finalists, begin with a match against Wales at Twickenham in early February. It is not the easiest of tasks to accomplish against the clock Rob Andrew, the Rugby Football Union's elite rugby director, spent two very long months considering what Basil Fawlty might have called the "bleedin' obvious" before asking the head coach to continue but the time shortage certainly adds to the fun. Which Ashton will stand up to be counted on 9 January: the spring version or the autumn one?
England's approach to the latter stages of the global tournament in France had very little of the devil-may-care about it; indeed, their two-pronged strategy stick it up the jumper for half the game, kick the leather off it for the other half was about as exhilarating as a dank day in Dudley. If truth be told, Ashton did not much like it himself. Ask him whether he would rather have presided over the joyous victory against the Tricolores the previous March, when the likes of Toby Flood, Shane Geraghty, David Strettle and dear old Mike Catt were joined together in holy resplendence, and his answer is of the one-word variety.
In the aftermath of the horrible 36-point pool-stage defeat by the Springboks in Paris, however, there was no room for manoeuvre not even for a thinker as free and innovative as Ashton. Had England not squeezed the pips from the Samoans on a sunlit day in Nantes, they would have been out of the World Cup and the coach would have been out of a job. End of. France at Twickenham would have counted for diddly-squat. Ashton may have yearned for something different from a Jason Robinson or a Mathew Tait towards the business end of the tournament, but under the circumstances, even he had to embrace the theory of same-old, same-old.
He does not have to embrace it now, though. He can, if he so wishes, give the richest attacking talents in English rugby and there are plenty of them the keys to the city and tell them to go where they like. Robinson and Catt are no longer available to him but he has Flood and Tait at his disposal, not to mention Strettle and Geraghty, Ryan Lamb and Danny Cipriani, Anthony Allen and James Simpson-Daniel, Nick Abendanon and Dan Hipkiss and Tom Varndell.
And these are just the 25s-and-under. Olly Barkley, 26 last month, is playing some of the most intelligent rugby of his career down there on the banks of the River Avon; Charlie Hodgson, younger than he seems at 27, is steering Sale back into serious Premiership contention; Mike Tindall, a thoroughly red-blooded centre despite his blue-blooded association, is as aggressive as ever he was now that his injury hassles are behind him. All these individuals are on Ashton's radar, along with the Lewseys and Sackeys and Cuetos of the red rose parish.
Oh yes ... almost forgot. There is a chap by the name of Wilkinson playing regularly well, relatively regularly at Newcastle. What to do with him? Why, Ashton will pick him, naturally. The Lambs and Ciprianis can play as well as they like (and some of their rugby has been mesmeric this season), but in Wilkinson, they face a veritable K2 of an outside-half. Ashton has been buying himself some time and space of late by dividing the England project into three stages: the Six Nations campaign and summer tour of New Zealand; the 2008-09 season, which will be played under the new terms and conditions governing the red rose relationship with the Premiership clubs; and the two-year drive towards the 2011 World Cup in All Black country. It is a clever tactic, one that spares him the need to make awkward personnel decisions for another 18 months, by which time Jonny-boy may have reached the end of his dangerously frayed tether.
But some coaches involved in the wider England set-up believe we saw the best of Wilkinson long ago, and are pushing hard on behalf of Cipriani and Lamb, in particular. They are unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing immediately if Wilkinson's bizarre inclusion in the runners and riders for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award smacked of the Emperor's New Clothes, given his fragile goal-kicking performance at the World Cup, the man in the street still considers him undroppable but at least the issue is being discussed, albeit in hushed tones after dark.
Ashton's burning priorities lie elsewhere. The scrum-half supply is dire, thanks to Harry Ellis' slow recovery from the mangled knee ligaments that cost him a World Cup place and Shaun Perry's horrifying throat injury, suffered during a Heineken Cup match in Bristol 13 days ago. Peter Richards, Andy Gomarsall and Richard Wigglesworth are the obvious candidates, especially as Ben Foden of Sale cannot get a game at No 9 for love nor money. Similarly, the hooking position is less than reassuring. Might David Paice of London Irish break up the Regan-Chuter-Mears axis that served in France? Good judges consider him capable, if a little undisciplined.
Decisions, decisions. Are the survivors of the 2003 Webb Ellis Cup-winning pack Phil Vickery and Ben Kay and Lawrence Dallaglio still worth a punt when such influential forwards as Matt Stevens, Steve Borthwick and James Haskell are changing the nature of the race? John Wells, the forwards coach who notoriously failed to see eye to eye with Ashton in the autumn, will have his views, but if England are serious about "moving ahead of the times rather than with the times", as the head man put it a week or so ago, they have to decide if the old boys can play at a pace far faster than anything seen in those last few World Cup matches. If the answer is "no", or even less than a definite "yes", they have to go, with the best wishes of us all.
Possible 30-man England squad for Six Nations Championship
* BACK THREE
N Abendanon (Bath), M Cueto (Wasps), J Lewsey (Wasps), P Sackey (Wasps), D Strettle (Harlequins), M Tait (Newcastle).
O Barkley (Bath), D Cipriani (Wasps), T Flood (Newcastle), D Hipkiss (Leicester), M Tindall (Gloucester), J Wilkinson (Newcastle).
A Gomarsall (Harlequins), P Richards (London Irish).
T Payne (Wasps), A Sheridan (Sale), M Stevens (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps).
G Chuter (Leicester), D Paice (London Irish).
S Borthwick (Bath), N Kennedy (London Irish), T Palmer (Wasps), S Shaw (Wasps).
* BACK ROW
M Corry (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins), J Haskell (Wasps), M Lund (Sale), L Moody (Leicester), T Rees (Wasps).Reuse content