Gomarsall out as Ashton acquires a taste for blood

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Andy Gomarsall, one of the principal architects of England's extraordinary march to last year's World Cup final, found himself being frogmarched out of the team yesterday as Brian Ashton, the head coach, began his preparations for this weekend's Six Nations match with France in Paris. The Harlequins scrum-half was far from ecstatic, especially when he discovered he had not even made the replacements' bench, but Ashton wants his side to play at a quick pace, not a funereal one.

To that end, he has promoted Richard Wigglesworth of Sale, who announced himself as a half-back of considerable promise in performing a starring role against Leicester in the 2006 Premiership final at Twickenham. Potential and fulfilment are two different things, however, as Wigglesworth discovered when the likes of Shaun Perry, Peter Richards and Gomarsall himself beat him to the red-rose berth following the long-term injury suffered by Harry Ellis of Leicester – a setback that destabilised England to a serious degree.

Wigglesworth will be making his first international start, but that will not worry the coach unduly. His opposite number, Marc Lièvremont, has selected three players in important decision-making positions – No 8, scrum-half and stand-off – with only 100 minutes of Test rugby and a single start between them. The England strategists admit they have seen precious little of Louis Picamoles, Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc, and for all they know, the Tricolores may have uncovered a trio of world-beaters. All things considered, though, Ashton prefers his Nos 8-10 to Lièvremont's combination.

Not that he was in a particularly happy-go-lucky mood yesterday. The coach may not have said so in as many words, but he left little doubt that some players were downing their final pints of Old Gutbucket in the Last Chance Saloon, with the landlord tapping his fingers impatiently on the bar. The performance in the last 20 minutes against Wales in the opening match at Twickenham was unacceptable, as were the last 40 in Rome a week ago last Sunday. On Saturday night, half a dozen of his charges will feel Ashton's gaze burning holes in them.

He could have hidden behind Gomarsall's fitness problems – the back spasms that prevented him playing for Quins last weekend – but decided against it. "The change at scrum-half is a matter of selection," he said, bluntly. "Andy hasn't hit the sort of form we saw from him during the World Cup and if we're going to raise the tempo of our game, we need more energy in the No 9 position. I don't necessarily think we've seen the last of him – we certainly haven't if the tone of our conversation this morning was anything to go by – but I feel the change is right for this game."

He might have said something similar about players in every other area of the side, with the exception of the second row, where Simon Shaw and Steve Borthwick are doing almost everything well and some things brilliantly. Defeat in Paris would almost certainly result in a radical reassessment ahead of the match with Scotland in Edinburgh on 8 March, with the likes of Tom Croft, the Leicester loose forward, and Danny Cipriani, the Wasps playmaker, moving to centre stage. As Ashton said: "This is a very big game for certain people." They have been warned.

Both Croft and Cipriani will be on the bench in Paris, as will Matt Stevens, the Bath prop who performed strongly in Rome but makes way once again for Phil Vickery, who returns as captain. There is also a change on the other side of the front row, where Andrew Sheridan takes over from Tim Payne. Sheridan missed the meeting with the Italians because of an infected cut on his Achilles tendon – the third time he has withdrawn from an international match because of what might be called "blood" issues.

"I've seen an immunologist, and he was a very interesting bloke," the prop from Sale said yesterday, in his usual informative fashion. And the outcome of the discussion? "He doesn't think I'm about to keel over at any moment," Sheridan replied. "We're still not sure whether I just react badly to things likes cuts and insect bites, or whether I should simply wash myself a bit better." This immunologist chap should tread carefully. Only someone with a death wish would question Sheridan's personal hygiene.

The French will have an unfamiliar look about them, and while this is nothing new – from the start, Lièvremont has used this tournament in the way a chemist uses a test tube – the thrill of the unknown will be even greater than that experienced in the victories over Scotland and Ireland. Parra is just 19 and the youngest scrum-half ever to have played for Les Bleus; indeed, he was too young to have played in his country's Under-21 World Cup triumph in 2006. Trinh-Duc is 21, Picamoles only a year older. They could be everything, or nothing. Who can say for sure?

Even after naming his side yesterday, Lièvremont was forced into further tinkering. The Toulouse lock Romain Millo-Chlusky, selected for his second start, suffered an Achilles injury in training and was replaced by Pascal Papé of Stade Français. Jérôme Thion of Biarritz, a first-choice lock during the World Cup, was drafted onto the bench.

Saturday's Paris teams

France

15 C Heymans (Toulouse)

14 A Rougerie (Clermont)

13 D Marty (Perpignan)

12 D Traille (Biarritz)

11 V Clerc (Toulouse)

10 F Trinh-Duc (M'pellier)

9 M Parra (Bourgoin)

1 L Faure (Sale)

2 D Szarzewski (Stade F)

3 N Mas (Perpignan)

4 L Nallet (Castres, capt)

5 P Pape (Stade Français)

6 T Dusautoir (Toulouse)

7 J Bonnaire (Clermont)

8 L Picamoles (M'pellier)

Replacements: 16 W Servat, 17 JB Poux (both Toulouse), 18 J Thion (Biarritz), 19 F Ouedraogo (M'pellier), 20 D Yachvili (Biarritz), 21 D Skrela (Stade), 22 A Floch (Clermont).

England

15 I Balshaw (Gloucester)

14 P Sackey (Wasps)

13 J Noon (Newcastle)

12 T Flood (Newcastle)

11 L Vainikolo (Gloucester)

10 J Wilkinson (Newcastle)

9 R Wigglesworth (Sale)

1 A Sheridan (Sale)

2 M Regan (Bristol)

3 P Vickery (Wasps, capt)

4 S Shaw (Wasps)

5 S Borthwick (Bath)

6 J Haskell (Wasps)

7 M Lipman (Bath)

8 N Easter (Harlequins)

Replacements: 16 L Mears (Bath), 17 M Stevens (Bath), 18 B Kay (Leicester), 19 T Croft (Leicester), 20 P Hodgson (L Irish), 21 D Cipriani (Wasps), 22 M Tait (Newcastle).

Kick-off: 8pm (BBC 1), Referee: S Walsh (NZ)

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