England still failing to see Ashton's vision

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton's first impressions of England's performance against South Africa last Saturday were not of the positive variety, despite the end result, and he was reinforced in his opinion after doing the maths.

"There was a period of 11 minutes 33 seconds when we kicked badly five times and the Boks scored 10 points," he complained yesterday with a sorry shake of the head. "And there was one occasion when all 15 of our players could be seen inhabiting a box measuring 12 metres by 11. If my sums are right, that's an area of 132 square metres. The Twickenham pitch offers something like 7,000 square metres of space." Say no more, squire, as the Pythons might have remarked.

It was not difficult to see his point. After a record-equalling seven defeats on the bounce, the world champions broke the sequence by revisiting the up-the-jumper policy that served them so well in Australia three years ago. While Ashton was as relieved as anyone to see that long-awaited "w" inscribed in the scorebook, he was not put on this earth to preside over an England XV playing 10-man rugby. He wants, and expects, to witness something a little bolder in this weekend's second and final meeting with the Boks.

"We were 18-6 down. We needed to find a way to win the game and it's of massive credit to the players that they found one," the attack coach conceded in respect of England's last-ditch victory. "They dug themselves out of a hole, which was more than they'd managed to do against Argentina the previous week. In that sense, it was a step forward.

"But in terms of moving on, we'll find it very difficult to win matches if we continue playing like that," Ashton added. "I'm frustrated, because we haven't progressed in the attacking sense since the game against New Zealand.

"But we're not talking about waving a magic wand here, of doing an overnight job. The approach we're trying to take will need some time to bed in. We've had three games together - a 10th of a season, basically. You can't achieve much in that period."

Ashton simply does not buy the argument that the narrower England play, the more formidable they become. Asked whether Jake White, the Springbok coach, was justified in suggesting that the red-rose army had "moved away from the things that worked for them" with this new-fangled theory of multi-layered attack, he replied: "I read that comment, and I can only say that I didn't know England had a traditional way of playing. When I was last involved at this level, we didn't stick the ball up our jumpers at all."

Not even during the last World Cup, when two tries were scored in almost four and a half hours of knock-out activity? "I'm not going back there," he responded, abruptly.

The Springboks have made four changes, one of them positional. Kabamba Floors, the 5ft 9in high-veld flanker whose name is very nearly as extravagant as his jaw-dropping hairstyle, wins a first cap in the back row, having been summoned from South Africa to replace the injured Pierre Spies. His recent performances for Free State in the domestic Currie Cup competition convinced many observers that he should have been in the squad in the first place. Still, better late than never.

Elsewhere in the loose combination, Juan Smith returns after missing last week's game through injury, while Danie Rossouw shifts from the flank to No 8 to fill the hole left by the incapacitated Jacques Cronje. There is also a return to the starting combination for the outside-half Andre Pretorius - a direct result of the knee problems suffered by Butch James five days ago.

Without James, the Boks cannot expect to defend quite as ferociously as in the opening match of the series - something that will not be lost on the England head coach, Andy Robinson, who would like nothing better than a second victory as he seeks to remain in gainful employment.

Happily for him, he received some faithful support from his close colleague John Wells, the former Leicester coach who inherited the running of the forward pack when Robinson was shifted from a hands-on role to that of overseer in last April's back-room reshuffle.

"Last week in particular was very hard and I have a lot of admiration for the way Andy handled things despite finding himself under such a massive amount of pressure," Wells said. "He didn't lose his focus, he didn't lose his cool. He drove the thing forward and kept the squad together when it would have been easy to start making rash comments."

It was a timely intervention. Win or lose on Saturday, Robinson will need all the help he can get.

* France have made two changes to the team who lost 23-11 to New Zealand last weekend for Saturday's Test against Argentina.Christophe Dominici is selected ahead of Aurelien Rougerie on the wing and Dimitri Yachvili will replace the injured Jean-Baptiste Elissalde at scrum-half.

South Africa team v England

(at Twickenham, Saturday, kick-off 2.30)

F Steyn (Sharks)

A Ndungane (Bulls)

W Olivier (Bulls)

J de Villiers (West Prov)

B Habana (Bulls)

A Pretorius (Cats)

R Januarie (Cats)

D Rossouw (Bulls)

J Smith (Cheetahs)

K Floors (Cheetahs)

J Muller (Sharks)

J Ackermann (Sharks)

BJ Botha (Sharks)

J Smit (Sharks, capt)

C J van der Linde (Cheetahs)

Replacements: C Ralepelle (Bulls), D Carstens (Sharks), A van den Berg (Sharks), G Britz (Cheetahs),R Pienaar (Sharks), J P Pietersen (Sharks) or B Fortuin (Cheetahs), J Pretorius (Lions).