Flood and Youngs form heart of new generation
Sunday 13 February 2011
One side based their game plan around their one world-class player, a forward. The other, reflective of an approach far removed from traditional diktat, planned around the attacking skills of three backs and passed a half-century for the first time in four years.
No it does not sound like England but then, they have not produced such a try-scoring predator as Chris Ashton in years. What about another product of rugby league, Jason Robinson, you ask? Not even Robinson scored tries at the rate of one per game. Ashton has nine from nine; Robinson scored six from his first nine appearances (including four against Romania).
Ashton, 23, was the first to give credit to his colleagues, notably the half-backs, Toby Flood and Ben Youngs, who controlled so deftly the tempo of the game. "Scoring tries isn't down to me," Ashton said. "It just happens I'm always running around and people made a lot of breaks today. I was there to be on the end of them."
It is not as simple as that – it never is. England have adopted an overall approach that is designed to break down opponents through enterprise, whereas Italy contrived to bring Sergio Parisse, their remarkable No 8, into the play as often as possible in the hope that he could beat England on his own. England will try to play this way because it suits the ability and aspirations of the current generation.
Youngs pulls opponents with him with his flat running. His understanding with another Leicester Tiger, Flood, has never been better illustrated than yesterday, when the fly-half ripped great holes in the Italian defence.
Ashton's nose for a score threatens to re-write the record books. He is, therefore, entitled to celebrate, despite the criticism which followed his swallow dive for the first of his two tries against Wales in Cardiff eight days earlier. "What if he had dropped the ball in so flamboyant a dive," the pessimists said. Well, yesterday he deliberated as he hared 40 metres for the first of England's eight tries. "Martin Johnson [the England manager] didn't tell me not to do it," Ashton said. "He did say, 'Don't blow it.' I did have a few thinks about it and, as I got to the line, I decided to do it.
"When I got to the changing room, Martin was saying, 'We'll wait for Ashie, he's doing a bit of media after his last game for England.'"
Ashton celebrated hisfourth try in similar vein, the showman in him utterly irrespressible. Who can blame him? It is a long time since stuffier generations looked down long noses at such displays of individuality and these are the kind of gestures which attract more people to the game.
In his mind, he is imitating the playing style of Shane Williams, the Wales wing. "This was only my ninth game, I don't want to start saying, 'This was the best or that was the best'", he said, his down-to-earth Wigan roots obvious. "If I get to 50 [tries] I might start putting them in order. At the moment I'm just going with the flow. There's three more games in this championship."
He did acknowledge that someone else had described his try-scoring dive as the "Ash-splash". If England can harness the splash in coming games as well as they did yesterday, they will be live title contenders next month. Flood admitted that the freestyle performance may need greater control when France arrive at Twickenham on 26 February, but added that the overall approach reflects an attitude and a confidence which is not about to change.
"Chris is an individual player within a team, if I can put it like that," Flood said. "He's always looking to score and that's what you want, a huge work rate. He wants that pass straight away, he's always there, on the inside, on the outside, places where you don't expect him to be. A lot of us could take a leaf out of his book."
If they do, England's future will be worth reading about.
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