Cipriani holds key to fate of red rose regime

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It is almost exactly a decade since Brian Ashton, under stress and suffering from a bout of shingles, turned his back on the Ireland team after a 13-month stretch as head coach that bordered on the purgatorial. This afternoon, the Irish visit Twickenham in the knowledge that a comprehensive victory might bring Ashton's stewardship of England to an abrupt and premature conclusion. The irony is almost too grim for words; indeed, the old cabbage patch has not staged a fixture as macabre as this since the Andy Robinson-Jake White face-off in the autumn of 2006.

There is precious little logic behind the current run on Ashton. His team have won seven of their last 11 games – the victories include two over France in Paris and the famous lancing of a festering World Cup boil against the Wallabies in Marseilles – and they went within 10 points of becoming the first side to retain the Webb Ellis Cup. If results in this Six Nations tournament have been no better than so-so, it is equally true to say that England have been ravaged both by injury and misfortune, particularly in the opening match with Wales, who are rather rubbing it in by chasing a Grand Slam.

But the ground is shifting beneath Ashton's feet and he knows it. "Am I feeling the discomfort? No. In fact, I'm completely comfortable with the way I'm operating," he said yesterday. "However, I do think those around me are feeling it – people in my family and so on." Is it fair, all this sniping? "I know rugby is a results-driven business, but there is a lot more to it than that. Anyway, if we look at it purely from the results perspective, it could be worse than seven wins from 11."

The coach said there had been no discussion about the future with his immediate boss, the elite rugby director, Rob Andrew, adding that he had heard nothing to suggest that he would not lead England on their two-Test visit to New Zealand in June. But he is aware that some senior members of the Rugby Football Union hierarchy are briefing against him, just as they briefed against his predecessor, Robinson, before England's match with South Africa 16 months ago, when White's job as coach of the Springboks was also on the line. The fact that White has repeatedly been linked with the England job since prevailing over Ashton in the World Cup final last October is one more poisonous ingredient in the mix.

In a different set of circumstances, Ashton might feel some sympathy for his opposite number this afternoon. Eddie O'Sullivan, the long-serving Ireland coach, is not exactly striding across the sunlit uplands after a desperate World Cup campaign and a deeply wounding defeat at the hands of his old adversary, the Wales coach Warren Gatland, in Dublin last weekend. But after a nine-day period in which Ashton has dropped Danny Cipriani for disciplinary reasons, finished a poor second to Scotland and then made himself a hostage to fortune by recalling Cipriani at the expense of Jonny Wilkinson, the 61-year-old Lancastrian has far too much on his plate to start worrying about a rival.

Sometimes, it seems Twickenham Man will countenance no outside-half but Wilkinson: certainly, there were times in the recent past when poor Charlie Hodgson was slaughtered by the Hooray Henry brigade for committing the cardinal sin of not being Jonny. Might Cipriani suffer similar abuse if he misses the sticks with some early penalties this afternoon?

"That hasn't crossed my mind," Ashton replied. "I have a lot of faith in the England supporters. I know they want a big game from us and I know they're looking forward to seeing Danny play." And how does he see Cipriani reacting to the demands of making a first international start in the key decision-making position? "He's been very vocal and authoritative all week," the coach replied. "Only this morning, he was criticising a couple of forwards for being lazy."

It could be the start of something wonderful, for Cipriani has a maverick streak not seen in an England outside-half since Stuart Barnes won his fistful of caps between 1984 and 1993. There again, he will do well to put one over Ronan O'Gara this afternoon. O'Gara is the most accomplished tactical kicker in world rugby, and as he demonstrated in the runaway victory over Scotland in the third round of Six Nations matches, he is nobody's fool with ball in hand. Now that he has assumed the Ireland captaincy in the absence of the injured Brian O'Driscoll, he will be satisfied with nothing less than a match-winning contribution.

Ireland are far more hardened in terms of Test experience and they pose serious threats from full-back and scrum-half, as well as from a back row led by David Wallace, an open-side flanker blessed with all the talents. England have the tight forwards to dominate at the coalface, but if the likes of Andrew Sheridan and Steve Borthwick fail to extract every last ounce of advantage at scrum and line-out the green-shirted hordes have it in them to lower the red rose colours for the fifth successive time since 2004.

And where might that leave Ashton? "Any old win would be better than any old loss," he said, "but we're looking for a real performance." So too are those RFU types who do the hiring and firing.

Today's Twickenham teams


15 I Balshaw (Gloucester)

14 P Sackey (Wasps)

13 J Noon (Newcastle)

12 T Flood (Newcastle)

11 L Vainikolo (Gloucester)

10 D Cipriani (Wasps)

9 R Wigglesworth (Sale)

1 A Sheridan (Sale)

2 L Mears (Bath)

3 P Vickery (Wasps, capt)

4 S Shaw (Wasps)

5 S Borthwick (Bath)

6 T Croft (Leicester)

7 M Lipman (Bath)

8 N Easter (Harlequins)

Replacements: 16 G Chuter (Leicester), 17 M Stevens (Bath), 18 B Kay (Leicester), 19 J Haskell (Wasps), 20 P Hodgson (London Irish), 21 J Wilkinson (Newcastle), 22 M Tait (Newcastle).


15 G Murphy (Leicester)

14 T Bowe (Ulster)

13 A Trimble (Ulster)

12 S Horgan (Leinster)

11 R Kearney (Leinster)

10 R O'Gara (Munster, capt)

9 E Reddan (Wasps)

1 M Horan (Munster)

2 R Best (Ulster)

3 J Hayes (Munster)

4 D O'Callaghan (Munster)

5 P O'Connell (Munster)

6 D Leamy (Munster)

7 D Wallace (Munster)

8 J Heaslip (Leinster)

Replacements: 16 B Jackman (Leinster), 17 T Buckley (Munster), 18 M O'Driscoll (Munster), 19 S Easterby (Scarlets), 20 P Stringer (Munster), 21 P Wallace (Ulster), 22 L Fitzgerald (Leinster).

Referee: S Dickinson (Aus)

Kick-off: 3pm (BBC 1)