Chris Ashton will revert to his favourite right wing to face France today, as England's back three accommodates the late call-up of Gloucester's Charlie Sharples. If the change brings a return to the Wiganer's scoring form of his first season and a half in the national side it could be party time in Paris.
In this Six Nations, England's lack of tries has loaded the guns of criticism to be fired by friend and foe. Two tries in three matches – from charge-downs by the fly-half Charlie Hodgson in the narrow wins in Scotland and Italy, followed by a blank sheet in the defeat by Wales – is the poorest return among the six teams. Last year, Ashton finished the autumn's World Cup as joint top try-scorer alongside France's Vincent Clerc, having been out on his own in the spring in the Six Nations that England won.
In Stuart Lancaster's new-look line-up for 2012, Ashton and the full-back Ben Foden have survived in the back three, to be joined first by Dave Strettle and now by the once-capped Sharples, included yesterday after Strettle of Saracens dropped out with a sternum injury.
The root causes of the drought depend on how deeply you wish to dig. Graham Henry, New Zealand's World Cup-winning coach, sniped recently: "England and the English clubs play a game based on fear and a generation of promising backs are dying on their feet." Leicester's backs coach, Matt O'Connor, riled by the dropping to the England bench of his club's scrum-half Ben Youngs, and the omission of the fly-half Toby Flood, accused the national side of playing "not to lose".
But perhaps the most authentic voice belonged to Simon Halliday. Speaking to the Sports Journalists' Association, and with no particular axe to grind, the stylish England centre and wing of 1986 to 1992 bemoaned England's inability to turn possession into points.
"We're clearly good enough up front," Halliday said. "It's how we deal with the breakdown and then what we do with the ball. England's midfield [Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi] have yet to show they can distribute the ball out wide. They need to be running a lot straighter and delivering the ball with a lot more timing to bring in the back three. It's very difficult for Ashton to do anything when he's collecting defenders at the same time."
Tries can come from anywhere, of course, but the wings are always the bookmakers' shortest priced to strike. Ashton has not scored in four England matches and he has also been dropped by Northampton. The "Ash Splash" dive has gone missing. There must be a reasonable cutting of slack to an England team in transition, but it makes for a shaky platform for a revival.
Since retiring from playing – his penultimate cap was in the 1992 Battle of Paris – Halliday has served on the Club England committee, the RFU council and club boards at Bath and Esher. "I'd like to see England make a statement in the first five minutes and go for it," he said, "perhaps with fast ball off the top of the line-out. We won't beat France through penalties; we will have to score tries."
Lancaster, unsurprisingly, was more circumspect as England departed on Friday, conceding only that "tries give you the best chance of winning the game". He also insisted Youngs and Flood were demoted on form alone; not because they were unable to fit his England's style. Yet Foden's early try from Ashton's pass in Paris in 2010, when France won 12-10, feels like a flowering of expression since nipped in the bud.
Owen Farrell, about to make his second start at fly-half, is not a runner or sniper so it will need Barritt and Tuilagi to break the gainline if England are to attack from behind the first line of cover. Sharples, a favourite of Lancaster's with the England Saxons, has the pace to profit.
"I've played outside Brad and he's a human wrecking ball," said Strettle."He may not create the opportunity directly but he'll take three guys to tackle him and we've got Manu, who can break lines for fun, then it's up to us wings and the full-back to runoff them. And that's just one way to do it."
Halliday concurred with the decision to give the 20-year-old Farrell another chance. And everyone knows that England playing without a genuine openside flanker to be a link man is out of all the backs' hands.
Ashton, who will now mark the giant Julien Malzieu, said he is following the ball as of old, and that Farrell would need time to adjust.
"I've heard people say I've been doing things differently but it's absolute nonsense," said Ashton. "You watch the video, I'm right at the side of everything, it's just one pass away from actually getting those tries. It must be hard [for Farrell] going in there at 10, he's got everything on his mind, getting used to some little winger on his shoulder shouting all the time. I've had quite a few conversations about it and time together will make it work."
As for swapping wings – he has done it before after winning his first caps in 2010 on the left – Ashton said: "You do get used to seeing the game from that side of the pitch."
England's run of six Championship matches scoring no tries or one is their leanest since seven in a row from 1984 to 1986. But there is a flipside. The 40 points conceded is the fewest in the Championship and the tries by "Charge-down Charlie" count as aggressive defence. As Strettle pointed out: "When the other side has the ball we don't see that as a weakness."
Halliday is unimpressed to see Aurélien Rougerie at centre for France – "He is obviously a wing, he's passing when he shouldn't do, and they have [the other centre] Wesley Fofana, who is a fine player but they are not using him well."
He believes young English players are "too samey, going from gym to ice bath to DVD to skills to pizza". Many more of us are of the feeling that they emerge from the Premiership lacking the ability to finish a three-on-two or two-on-two. A try by whatever means this afternoon would be one in the eye for the doubters.
France v England is on BBC1 today, kick-off 3pm
Le Classique: Highs and lows of rugby's entente-not-very-cordiale
Nothing in rugby is guaranteed to bring out the best and worst in either side like England v France – in its 106-year history, it has brought us all-time great tries, legendary punch-ups, comical defence, mouthing off before and after, referees pushed around and so many unpredictable results that even England at a low ebb are considered to have a chance in Paris today. Le Classique in football is Paris St-Germain v Marseille. It's time to bin the apple-advert cliché of Le Crunch. This is rugby's Le Classique...
The lean years
France did not win at Twickenham until 1951, when the great flanker Jean Prat scored a try and kicked the goals too. In the 1970s the airy Stade Colombes and concrete bowl of Parc des Princes were mostly crucibles of pain for England. "We attack from the tunnel," vowed the full-back Pierre Villepreux and his men in 1972. By the early 1990s, England had worked out a winning formula – they reeled off eight straight wins, home and away.
The World Cup quarter-final of 1991 sent England to Paris, where Mickey Skinner went nose to nose with Eric Champ and the stylish Serge Blanco threw swinging arms at Nigel Heslop. Furious French coach Daniel Dubroca manhandled the referee, David Bishop, after England won 19-10. In 2008 Marc Lièvremont, a successor of Dubroca, used "grotesque" and "a clown" to describe England hooker Mark Regan after the red-rose pack masterminded victory at Stade de France.
... and the filth
The 1992 Five Nations match in Paris was Test rugby's most extraordinary implosion. France hooker Vincent Moscato and prop Grégoire Lascubé were sent off for headbutting in the scrum and stamping on Martin Bayfield respectively. Captain Jeff Tordo shed tears of frustration at the dominance of England's tight five – wherein lay the taunting "Pitbull", Brian Moore – and what the catcalling crowd viewed as the bias of Stephen Hilditch, the Irish referee. England won 31-13.
In 1991 at Twickenham, the French unleashed a length-of-the-field try that began witha missed England goal-kick, shifted to the audacious Blanco and was finished by Philippe Saint-André, now France's coach. England, however, won 21-19 to seal a Grand Slam.
Dozy Damien Traille allowed Josh Lewsey to score a crucial early try in the 2007 World Cup semi-final, which England won 14-9 in Paris. Two years later Marc Lièvremont brought a huge pack – containing "The Caveman", Sébastien Chabal – to Twickenham but they rolled over like poodle puppies to lose 34-10 on one of Martin Johnson's better days as England manager. However, in the most recent meeting, the World Cup quarter-final in Auckland last October, Johnson could only watch as panicky defence by Ben Foden and Chris Ashton allowed France to build a 16-0 half-time lead. It finished 19-12.
... and the kicks where it hurt
Twice in World Cup semi-finals – in Sydney in 2003 and in Paris in 2007 – France were knocked out by Jonny Wilkinson's boot. Furthermore, a Wilkinson tackle on Emile Ntamack in 2000, another English victory in France, stands for the ages. But old "Goldenballs" had his tough times, too: he was bloodied and substituted in 2002 amid the French flanker Serge Betsen's reign of terror that set up a 20-15 home win and a France Grand Slam.Reuse content