Balshaw to revive attack as Robinson takes gamble

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The Independent Online

There was a time, in the early weeks of 2001, when Iain Balshaw looked for all the world like the most exhilaratingly gifted attacking full-back to stride across the union stage since Christian Cullen made his debut as an All Black. Later that year, the blond bombshell saw his form implode, his fitness levels disappear through the floor and his confidence evaporate. Now, five days before a highly significant Six Nations fixture with Italy, the red rose army are hoping against hope that the first Balshaw has finally reasserted some authority over the second.

There was a time, in the early weeks of 2001, when Iain Balshaw looked for all the world like the most exhilaratingly gifted attacking full-back to stride across the union stage since Christian Cullen made his debut as an All Black. Later that year, the blond bombshell saw his form implode, his fitness levels disappear through the floor and his confidence evaporate. Now, five days before a highly significant Six Nations fixture with Italy, the red rose army are hoping against hope that the first Balshaw has finally reasserted some authority over the second.

If the real Balshaw stands up to be counted at Twickenham on Saturday and England finally get their running game in some sort of order, the thumb injury suffered by Jason Robinson during the defeat by Ireland in Dublin will be seen as a blessing in disguise. Brilliant though Robinson may be at the Princess Tippy-toes stuff, the world champions have felt the absence of a genuine full-back, as opposed to a manufactured one. Balshaw is quick and elusive, but he also knows how to run orthodox lines, create overlaps and deliver scoring passes off either hand. This weekend's meeting with the Azzurri will be a big moment, both for him and his team.

Andy Robinson, the head coach, handed Balshaw the No 15 role yesterday - the one change from the side who performed creditably enough in Dublin, without suggesting for a moment that they had the measure of the Irish defensive alignment. Robinson would probably have shifted Josh Lewsey of Wasps to the full-back position and summoned Ben Cohen, of Northampton, to the left wing had Cohen not been injured during the tsunami fund-raising match at Twickenham last weekend, but all things considered, he is probably happy to have Balshaw back in the mix. He knows him like the back of his hand, having nurtured him at Bath in the late 1990s, and values his straight-line speed and highly developed sense of timing.

Now at Leeds, whom he captained to victory over London Irish in the Powergen Cup semi-final at Headingley on Sunday, Balshaw was characteristically ho-hum about being presented with another opportunity to fulfil himself at international level. "I had a few injuries when I came to Leeds, and I just wanted to get over them," he said. "I've been working very hard on just getting back and playing consistently, and I've been doing all right recently, getting a little better with each game. The confidence is coming and I'm feeling sharper and fitter. I'm just very happy to be back playing some decent rugby." Jason Robinson will not play again this side of mid-April - the former rugby league international is recovering from surgery on his mangled digit - so Balshaw can expect a second run against the Scots in the Calcutta Cup match, again at Twickenham, on Saturday week. The 25-year-old Lancastrian may even make a late bid for a place on the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand this summer, although his previous Lions experience, in 2001, was so relentlessly miserable that he might prefer a wet fortnight in Milton Keynes.

Sensibly, the coaching team have resisted any slight temptation there may have been to promote two or three players from the bench in the light of the defeat in Dublin - England's fourth in succession, and their third in this most competitive of Six Nations tournaments. Steve Borthwick, the Bath lock, played magnificently for his club in the second of the Powergen semi-finals at the weekend, spearheading a supreme effort in extra time to secure victory over Gloucester. But Danny Grewcock and Ben Kay are the least of Andy Robinson's problems right now, and given the need for some continuity in the all-important area of the line-out, they were always likely to be retained.

So, too, was Matt Stevens, the young Bath prop, whose performance against Ireland took a veritable legion of nay-sayers completely by surprise. Stevens will play on the tight-head this weekend, despite the growing impression that he is more naturally suited to the loose-head role, where he played for Bath at Kingsholm two days ago. All things considered, though, this is no time for knee-jerk changes.

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