Heroes of Marseilles backed by Ashton to upset the hosts

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The Independent Online

What fool said the age of miracles had passed? England, perhaps the most unstable team in international rugby in terms of selection, will field an unchanged team for the first time in almost two years when they play France in the World Cup semi-final here on Saturday night. Brian Ashton, the head coach, was tempted to tinker with the combination that did for the Wallabies in Marseilles last weekend – for a start, he gave some thought to picking Andy Farrell in midfield – but eventually settled for the status quo. As a result, Jason Robinson will win his 50th cap and Nick Easter will continue at No 8, ahead of Lawrence Dallaglio.

Together with the wing Josh Lewsey, the centre Mike Catt, the prop Phil Vickery and the lock Ben Kay, Robinson is a survivor from the 2003 semi-final between the two nations – a wet-weather tie that saw the French drown in a sea of insecurity. Most of the other starters know what it is to face Les Bleus in their own capital, although the experience will be new to Easter, as well as to the outside backs Paul Sackey and Mathew Tait and, strangely, the scrum-half Andy Gomarsall, who made his first England appearance as long ago as 1996.

Ashton informed the players of his decision on Tuesday night, so there was no question of him reacting to the French selection. "It was not an automatic process – we discussed all 15 positions, because we've always sought to be fair to all 30 players," he said. "But the performance against Australia was a significant improvement on anything we'd achieved during the pool stage of the tournament and the players did enough to warrant another opportunity."

Not for the first time, the inside centre position gave him more grief than any other. He had picked Farrell – always a controversial move – for the quarter-final, only to lose the former Great Britain rugby league captain to a calf injury four days before the match. With Olly Barkley, the Bath midfielder, breaking down in the same training session, he recalled Catt for the first time since the embarrassing defeat by South Africa in the second round of group matches and gave Toby Flood, the young Newcastle player, a place on the bench. Catt played pretty well against the Wallabies, while Flood did some lovely things when summoned for the last 15 minutes. It was enough to persuade Ashton to ignore Farrell, despite his recovery.

"Mike took his chance, basically, but it was a very difficult decision," said the coach, who has seen rather more of Farrell's skills in the private surroundings of the training paddock than the great unwashed have witnessed on the field of play. "We wanted Toby on the bench as a second goal-kicker, so whoever missed out on the starting place knew he wouldn't be involved at all. I suppose it's another example of the rotten luck Farrell has suffered since he came to union."

And Flood? After all, it was Ashton's decision to omit him from his initial party – he is here only as a consequence of Jamie Noon's knee injury – and if it seemed deeply questionable at the time, his contribution against the Wallabies reinforced the sense of injustice. "I'm more than happy to stay with Toby for this game," the coach said, without conceding so much as a millimetre in respect of the broader argument. "He was asked to step into a hot environment last weekend and he handled the pressure of the situation exceptionally well."

Andy Robinson was the last England coach to resist the temptation to chop and change his personnel, and it was some time ago. Twenty-three months and 27 matches ago, to be precise. Ashton, who succeeded his former protégé last December – the rugby world moves in mysterious ways, to be sure – points to a run of injuries to explain the lion's share of his dabblings, but there have been moments when he has deliberately switched horses. He chose Easter ahead of Dallaglio after the opening game against the United States, has stuck with Mark Regan at hooker ahead of George Chuter and has dumped several original first-choicers in the backs, including the Bristol scrum-half Shaun Perry and the Sale wing Mark Cueto.

The fact that the French are also sticking with their quarter-final formation suggests they are as happy as Ashton with the way things are progressing. "You could argue that we're the two sides on an upward curve," the England coach remarked, no doubt thinking of the below-par performances delivered by the other semi-finalists, Argentina and South Africa, last weekend. "Both England and France put in displays above and beyond their previous efforts to get to this stage, so I think this weekend's match will be a massive contest.

"We'll need an improvement across the board, not least because I can't see us catching France off guard in the way we seemed to catch the Wallabies. They're the hosts, playing at their home stadium, with an entire country behind them. More to the point, they have threats all over the field. When you play the French, you have to be eternally vigilant. Take your eye off them and they'll do something to hurt you."

Some of England's fringe players are hurting already, but World Cups do that to people. Ask Andy Farrell.

* The BBC has won the rights to broadcast the Six Nations up to and including 2013 following a new deal announced yesterday.

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