James Lawton: Only Cipriani's cheek and invention can save Ashton now

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The Independent Online

Ever thought how it would have been for an emergency plumber parachuted on to the Titanic? No, but then why would anyone until the England coach, Brian Ashton, sent on Charlie Hodgson to replace Jonny Wilkinson?

This wasn't just a forlorn gesture. It was the bleakest admission of defeat in Ashton's defiance of the growing belief that Wilkinson's old value on the England bridge is in urgent need of reappraisal. The Danny Cipriani chicken didn't so much come home to roost at Murrayfield as peck away the last seeds of optimism that England, as currently set up and led, are going anywhere but backwards.

We are not talking about that odd bird which fluttered late last week when Ashton came down on the most exciting young talent in the English game so heavily for being in the wrong place at, somewhat marginally, the wrong time. On a weekend that started badly and turned hellish, Ashton also had to suffer a withering verdict on his reaction to Cipriani's misdemeanour from the man who led England to victory in the 2003 World Cup.

In the tank tracks of Scotland's victory, Sir Clive Woodward's words might just form a potentially fatal denunciation. "It was a massive over-reaction," he said. I think a lot of those England players will be feeling pretty poor about what happened.

"Cipriani is a highly professional person and someone England should be building their team around. To me, he hasn't done anything wrong. I think they made a massive error. They had a big opportunity to put their arm around him behind closed doors and say, 'Come on, that was a bit of a daft thing to do' – but no more than that. If I'd dropped every player who had not got to bed by one o'clock, I wouldn't have had anyone in the team. When I was in charge people like Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio were not yes-men. If they thought one of the team had been hung out to dry, that would have caused a lot of problems within the team group – so I wouldn't underestimate what that can do to a team environment."

Yet whatever we think of Ashton's decision to toss Cipriani out of the squad that performed so mind- numbingly against the wooden spoon contenders, the deeper reproach has to be that the coach had been so slow to invest in a creative force that might just have brought a spark of life at the outset of a campaign which has gone from bad to just about unspeakable.

This was Ashton's concession, if he it knew or not, when his team needed a touch of insight, a flicker of flair as badly as a gulp of oxygen. He withdrew Wilkinson. With a desperate need to score a try, to set in play something of wit and invention, he said in effect that he simply could not trust the great hero to get the job done.

The Wilkinson controversy is laid bare. When the Welsh sprang their second-half ambush at Twickenham he crumbled. Against Italy in Rome he played adequately in a leaden England performance. In Paris, like the rest of the team, he profited hugely from the naïvety of a young French team. Against Scotland, he was naked to the point of embarrassment in all but the matter of place-kicking. Unfortunately for England, Scotland's Chris Paterson was even better. Wilkinson's tactical kicking was the bluntest of instruments. With the ball in hand, he was as near to anonymous as any celebrated rugby player is ever likely to get.

Ashton may already be dead in the water – certainly, it has been an atrocious Six Nations effort – but if he is to survive, and perhaps display finally the instinct for attacking rugby which Jeremy Guscott used as the platform for the coach's defence when he came under such ferocious attack from Dallaglio and Mike Catt at the end of the World Cup, he cannot sit on his hands much longer.

A bandwagon will probably roll against Wilkinson. Until now, speaking against him – or rather questioning his place in a team that so obviously needed to be reseeded, and most vitally in the area of fly-half – has been seen in some quarters as something close to treason. This may no longer be the case.

If this wasn't a cross-roads for Ashton, a point where he just had to grasp the challenge of reinventing an England team which against Scotland was barren to the point of disbelief, the rest of his journey can only be to oblivion. This would be true in any circumstances but it is given a new and pressing weight by the march of Wales.

Already there is mention of a growing shadow over Ashton as he fights so desperately to give his regime a little credence. It is Jake White, the former coach of World Cup-winning South Africa. Even at Twickenham there must be at least a little speculation on the possibility that White might just do for England what the New Zealander Warren Gatland is doing for Wales.

Gatland, with the significant help of the Englishman Shaun Edwards, is throwing the English crisis into a harsher light every time his Welsh team take the field.

One of his cleverest tricks so far has to been to balance carefully the claims of four outstanding half-backs – Mike Phillips, Dwayne Peel, Stephen Jones and James Hook. Against Ireland at Croke Park, the Kiwi was incandescent about the lapses of Phillips and Martyn Williams which took them to the sin bin. Breakdowns in discipline, he made clear, would not be tolerated, but then they would be also weighed against performance. Gatland and Edwards were plainly ecstatic about the way Wales grew in their control of the match – and the confidence it would provide going into the Grand Slam decider at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.

Here, you could see a work in progress. You could see the strides towards a game of balance between attack and defence, a 15-man game lifted by the assurance of individuals like Ryan Jones, Hook and a Shane Williams who not only scored another try of bewitching self-confidence but also filled in for Phillips at the base of the scrum with a fine impression of the Artful Dodger.

What did England show us? Only so much of what we had seen before, but perhaps never dressed in such raggedy clothes.

The French coach, Marc Lièvremont, has been criticised for innovation at the expense of team-building. But then what is worse, chance and speculation or the dead hand England have displayed through most of this tournament and which in the World Cup was lifted only briefly in the cause of old reputations rather than any compelling belief in the future?

England hit rock bottom in Murrayfield. Against a team which had been swept aside by France, Wales and Ireland there was no life, no belief. We will never know if Danny Cipriani would have made a difference, but we can sure he would have tried, with the impudent, competitive courage that has already made his name so spectacularly in the highest class of club rugby.

Presumably, he will play against Ireland on Saturday. It should be a formality, because never before can a team have been in such need of a transfusion of young, wild and brilliant blood.

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