Chris Ashton suffered his share of trials and tribulations at the back end of last season: the swallow-diving wing finally admitted as much during the build-up to last week's victory over Australia, having spent much of the 2013 Six Nations pretending everything was hunky-dory. If he thinks those problems are safely behind him as a result of a bright start to the Premiership campaign with Saracens, he would be well advised to think again.
Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, confirmed that Christian Wade, the fleet-footed finisher from Wasps, had been in the original red rose line-up for Saturday's meeting with Argentina at Twickenham, and that his failure to recover from a hamstring twang suffered in training had effectively granted Ashton a stay of execution.
Wade's call-up for a home international debut had been well flagged, but the assumption had been that his selection for the contest with the Pumas, widely considered to be the softest of England's three autumn fixtures, was experimental and that Ashton was guaranteed a place against New Zealand – by some distance the hardest of the games – in eight days' time.
In reality, Ashton's long-term future in the side is under serious threat. Lancaster and his fellow England coaches were unconvinced by his contribution against the Wallabies – they held him responsible for the clean break that led to Matt Toomua's try for the tourists – and a strong display from Wade on Saturday might well have left Ashton on the outside looking in come the visit of the All Blacks. It is clear that the cross-coder from Wigan, virtually an automatic choice in the red-rose back division for the last three years, needs a big step up in performance on Saturday.
"There were one or two areas of his game last weekend that were disappointing," Lancaster remarked in unusually pointed fashion, "and we've put it on him a bit in our sessions this week. In fairness to Chris, he's trained well. But he's under some pressure and has a real point to prove. To be an international player in the wing position you need the X-factor: Chris has that ability to track the ball around the field; Christian has his footwork; Marland Yarde has power. But you need all the other things, too." It seems some of those "other things" have gone missing, particularly in the defensive sphere.
Lancaster was patently disappointed that his new cutting edge in attack – Wade on the right wing and Yarde on the left, with Mike Brown between them at full-back – had been blunted by injury before it had been unsheathed. Both Wade and Yarde, who finished last week's game with a hip problem, failed fitness tests this morning, hence the restoration of the old Ashton-Ben Foden axis, last seen in Port Elizabeth 18 months ago.
By contrast, the remodelling of the England front row has been hitch-free. Joe Marler of Harlequins, who started the autumn in the bronze medal position in the race for the loose-head berth, has a precious opportunity to improve his position on the propping podium, thanks to Mako Vunipola's knee injury and Lancaster's decision to nurse Alex Corbisiero back into international rugby rather than hurl him into it. At hooker, Dylan Hartley's promotion to the starting line-up merely reinforces the notion that both he and Tom Youngs will be World Cup-bound in 2015.
The situation on the tight-head side of the scrum is more intriguing. Dan Cole of Leicester has started every England game for which he has been available since Lancaster succeeded Martin Johnson a little over two years ago, so it would be easy to suggest that the decision to give David Wilson of Bath a run from the get-go on Saturday says more about Cole's exhausting workload than it does about his rival's credentials.
But the coach made it clear that Wilson is now holding Cole's feet to the fire. "He's made up the ground that existed between them," Lancaster said. "He's done everything we've asked of him – he's been excellent under the new scrum laws; his loose play has improved – and now's the time to give him a start. I think the word 'dropped' is too strong with regard to Dan, but we certainly feel we can trust David."
Likewise, Lancaster trusts the Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees, who did not have the best of games against the Wallabies. "I don't think he played as badly as he's been making out himself, but once we decided to stick with him for this game – and it was a pretty quick decision – I made sure I gave him some reassurance," the coach commented. "I've told him, 'Don't worry about it. Get on and enjoy it'."
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