Daft-as-a-brush wing cures travel sickness

Ashton and England are going places as backs get hands on quick ball at last
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The Independent Online

One of these days Martin Johnson will mis-time one of the short-arm jabs that give vent to his frustration while he is watching a match and brain a spectator sitting in front of him. For now the England manager,having kicked off the Six Nations' Championship with a win over Wales for the second year in a row, is able to make light of his team's growing pains. "We'll hand the rollickings out on Monday," he said during Friday's post-match discussions, with that touch of levity which those who like to see only a seething ogre find an inconvenient counterpoint to their archetype.

It was the customary winner-loser dynamic: the defeated – in this case Wales, by 26-19 and, almost as hurtfully in their Cardiff citadel, two tries to one – attempting to "take the positives" while the victors pick holes in their game and vow to put them right. For England to be doing this on foreign soil was unusual, after four wins (three of them in Italy) and a draw in their previous 16 Six Nations away matches.

The players will reconvene in Surrey tonight to prepare to meet Italy on Saturday, aware of Johnson's promise of a few "clips" – he meant video replays, not ones round the ear – including Chris Ashton's daftest of hands in a ruck when England were leading 13-6.

Ashton does a nice if knowing line in Paul Gascoigne-style daft-as-a-brushness. The Northampton wing, whose two tries took his statistics to five in eight Tests, laughed off his finger-wagging celebration and risky one-handed grounding of the ball. "Honestly I have no intention of doing it, then it comes over me and I just end up doing it," he said. "I'll get one of those rollickings for that stupid penalty. I thought we were under a bit of pressure but we weren't really. If he [Johnson] needs to make a point and humiliate me then he will do it – I don't mind, I don't get embarrassed too easily."

And in Johnson's jocularity and Ashton's humour there was the truth. England coped with the pressure, and though their scrummage did not drive the Welsh into the Millennium Stadium turf, a combination of back-row muscle and speed of movement delivered a crucial victory.

Mike Tindall's side now turn for home and a run of three Twickenham matches against Italy, France and Scotland before concluding the Championship in Ireland. You do wonder at how Tindall – the captain whose calming words when Wales were fighting hard in the latter stages were praised by England's No 8 Nick Easter – cannot make a flat pass off his left hand. You do wonder whether Jonathan Davies's run past Shontayne Hape to create Wales's try for Morgan Stoddart exposed a porousness in the England defence that the best attacks will keep on exploiting.

But you wonder, too, at the possibilities opened up by Ben Foden's attacks from the back and the debutant flanker Tom Wood's intelligent bursts of pick-and-go. If a single failing dogged England through the trophy-less years – not a Six Nations title or even a Triple Crown since 2003 – it was stultifying slowness in recycling the ball. Eight years has been too long to put it right – eight minutes would have been more appropriate to a team who called themselves world champions from 2003 to '07 – but they are almost there.

Toby Flood epitomised a cautious mood. "We made some poor decisions during the game," said England's fly-half, who kicked 13 points and did not miss. "We offloaded at times when we shouldn't have done. And we lost our discipline now and then when Wales could have made us pay."

By his side stood the golden boy of 2003, now the back-up on the bench. Jonny Wilkinson looked a bit like a banker having a mid-life crisis, with his Mediterranean-highlighted hair atop the regulation team suit, but he has a gold-standard value to Johnson. In baseball they can send on a relief pitcher called the "closer" to finish off a close-run game. Even in his most serene, Buddhism-inspired moments, Wilkinson ought not to be entirely content with a supporting role. But in the particular task of playing for the final 15 minutes and kicking a goal, with a baying crowd and mayhem all around, he has no equal.

Johnson may consider promoting Wilkinson to start against Italy, opponents with a record against England of played 16, lost 16. There is a case in the continuing absence of the injured Lewis Moody and Tom Croft for sticking with a back row of Wood, James Haskell and Easter: they quelled the Welsh and suited the current interpretation of the laws that diminishes the effectiveness of a ferreting openside flanker. It is not spectacularly exciting to watch and though it may be enough to win a Six Nations, England should know the French and Irish can play the same game.

"Wood was omnipresent as a good flanker should be," said Easter. "The squad is better now. Last year we struggled down in Italy. That's when we realised we weren't on the right track, and one area was honesty. Now we are brutally honest."

Tindall added: "We don't want to win ugly and scrape through. Yes, there will be more expectation as we are at home against Italy. The way we handle it is to focus on performance. If we do that we'll get the victories."

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