Ashton takes champions backwards

Coach laments lack of pace but he must be blamed for picking pedestrians. By Tim Glover
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Four years ago, when England were building what proved to be an irresistible case in the World Cup, they were taken to the wire by Samoa. Next Saturday the countries meet again inNantes, and the Pacific Islanders must be counting the hours to their rematch. The defending champions seem incapable of mounting any sort of defence.

The defeat by South Africa in Paris on Friday was not unexpected, but 36-0? It was not supposed to be that embarrassing, and it emphasised the utter confusion in the mind of the coach, Brian Ashton.

Afterwards he lamented his side's lack of pace – "It looked as if we were standing still" – but if he picks pedestrians he can't expect to win a race. South Africa have scored more points against England – they won 44-21 in knocking Martin Johnson's men out of the World Cup at the same stadium in 1999 – but have never had an easier victoryin what was supposed to be a full-blooded Test.

In Ashton's defence (it's not much, but it's all that's left), he has not had much luck. His two fly-halves, Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley, were injured in non-contact training and the captain, Phil Vickery, is serving a two-match ban for a desperate trip-kick against the United States. Had any or all of them played, however, England would still have lost heavily to the Springboks, who will win Pool A and meet the runners-up of Pool B (almost certainly Australia or Wales) in the quarter-finals.

The bedraggled Red Rose brigade have a do-or-die match against the Samoans, who conceded eight tries to South Africa but at least crossed the Boks' line and were competing until every refereeing decision under the sun went against them.

Thus far, and it may well go no further, England have brought nothing to the party other than the Webb Ellis Cup. Against the Boks they had little to offer apart from a kicking game which was not only hopelessly limited but badly executed.

In Mike Catt they had a 35-year-old at stand-off, and he is looking older by the minute; in Andy Farrell they had a 32-year-old who fell off the end of Wigan pier only to emerge in the union game as the greatest thing since sliced Hovis. On the eve of the game, described as England's most important since the World Cup final in 2003, Rob Andrew, the RFU's elite rugby director, said: "This is a wonderful chance for Andy to prove to all the doubters, and the game at large, that he has the talent to play union at the highest level." One day they might see that the emperor has no clothes.

Farrell should never have been in the squad of 30, and that was not the only mistake Ashton made. The list is getting longer with every pratfall. Before the meeting with the Boks Ashton singled out a South African player for special praise and it was not the wing Bryan Habana, who scored four tries against Samoa. It was the scrum-half Fourie du Preez, whom the England coach described as one of the most intelligent players in the world.

He was spot-on, of course, for Du Preez played an absolute blinder, creating all three tries.

Ashton, then, is a good judge of character, so why are England's brightest young things watching the World Cup on television? It was not only at half-back that England were played off the Stade de France, and don't even mention the line-out. Only Jason Robinson played with the skill and heart to match the Boks and he pulled up lame early in the second half. What a sad way to finish a dazzling career. His conversion from league was an unqualified success. He was the exception to the rule.