Brian Ashton cannot for the life of him work out why his red rose charges spent their most recent game – a flaky Six Nations victory over Italy in Rome – ignoring perhaps the least ignorable man in professional rugby: a 6ft 2in, spectacularly coiffeured wing from Tonga known to all and sundry as "the Volcano". In fact, the coach has gone so far as to suggest that during the course of a thoroughly awkward afternoon at Stadio Flaminio, Lesley Vainikolo was the only England player making sense.
Asked whether rugby union's latest capture from big-time rugby league might have worked just a little harder in leaving his wing in search of some action against an Italian side vulnerable to any injection of pace in broken field, Ashton promptly turned the question on its head. "Yes, Lesley spent a large part of that game on his wing, alone," he replied. "The fact that he was alone meant he was unmarked. I think he got it right, not wrong. What concerns me is our failure to recognise it. I wouldn't blame Lesley for the fact that we did not get the ball to him."
Vainikolo has played the best part of two full international matches for the second of his adopted countries – as a league specialist, he won Test honours for New Zealand before crossing codes last year – and leaving aside the inspired early touch that led to Toby Flood's try against Wales on the first day of Six Nations business, he has not achieved a fat lot. It might even be argued that he has fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns at an earlier stage than any player in history. His first serious game of union for Gloucester yielded him five tries. Since then? Er, um.
This weekend, he enters uncharted waters. The French may lack experience in the key decision-making areas of their side, but in the back three, they are positively state of the art. Vainikolo's direct opponent in Paris on Saturday night will be the substantial Aurélien Rougerie, who concedes little in the vital statistics department. Alongside him will be the twin stilettos of Toulouse, the left-wing Vincent Clerc and the full-back Cedric Heymans. As Andy Robinson, the former England coach, pointed out in these pages a couple of weeks ago, Vainikolo has yet to reveal a skill-set to rival the form backs in European rugby. If he is not very careful, the Volcano could be rendered extinct during the course of this contest.
"Those three players are the attacking force of the French team," agreed Mike Ford, the England defence coach. "They're on fire, aren't they? But I expect Lesley to handle whatever he's required to handle, even though he won't have come up against a combination of this quality during his time in union."
Had David Strettle, the polar opposite to Vainikolo in terms of style, not re-fractured one of those damned metatarsal things early in the game against Wales, the debate over the newcomer's capacity to survive trial by Tricolore would not be as intense. Ashton planned to use him off the bench during this tournament, preferably when games were safely in the bag. It was not the coach's fault – or, indeed, Vainikolo's – that Strettle broke down when he did.
But it is as it is. Despite the presence in the squad of Mark Cueto, who played on the left wing in last autumn's World Cup final, Vainikolo does not appear under any great pressure for his place. That could change if Ashton abandons his hard line against Josh Lewsey of Wasps, but it is more likely that Tom Varndell of Leicester will play his way into the frame for the summer tour of New Zealand.
By which time Vainikolo may or may not have justified the hype that surrounded his move to Gloucester from Bradford Bulls. Last weekend, he found himself in the thick of a rabid West Country derby at Bristol and made all the impact of a damp halibut until he successfully chased a streaker from the field. If he is the man caught with his pants down in Paris on Saturday, the England selectors, already being pressed to drop some of their senior personnel, will have one more problem on their hands.Reuse content