Jonathan Davies: A mix of old hands and fresh faces - Brian's way of lifting the clouds
The coach has been a close witness of Shane Geraghty
Sunday 07 January 2007
First out with his Six Nations squad, the new England coach, Brian Ashton, had obviously not been lolling around over Christmas, and his selections show a well-considered balance of new recruits and old hands.
His addition of a Saxons squad, aimed at the A matches against Italy and Ireland, comprises another rank of vets and rookies who are next in the pecking order.
By announcing the squads so early, Ashton has given a psychological boost to all the contenders. With a few weeks of tough club fixtures still to go before the Six Nations,there is still time for him to be impressed. He will already have a good idea of his starting line-up, but it is not too late for others to catch his eye.
You get the feeling that the black cloud has been lifted, temporarily at least, and suddenly England appear to have the wherewithal to build a few hopes.
The very appearance of Jonny Wilkinson's name in the squad is an encouragement. There are doubts about him being match-fit for the early stages, but with England's tougher assignments coming later his comeback could be perfectly timed. For England to play their opening matches against Scotland and Italy, both at Twickenham, could not be more fortunate. They won't be easy games, and still have to be won, but it gives them a chance to develop some confidence and momentum.
Phil Vickery will be grateful for a less pressured start to his captaincy. He is a good choice to replace Martin Corry, who I thought played well in the autumn, but whose playing style is not suited to leadership. He plays in the trenches, where he is absorbed with his own priorities. A captain needs to play with his head up, with an awareness of the wider picture.
Vickery is a high-profile player and could be more inspirational in the role. Besides, Corry may be under pressure for his place. Ashton has gone for players in form regardless of experience, and two of the most interesting are the back-row newcomers Tom Rees and Dan Ward-Smith, who are playing well.
One of the other main areas of fascination, at least until Wilkinson returns, is at outside-half, where Toby Flood has been joined by the 20-year-old Shane Geraghty of London Irish. Ashton has been a close witness of Geraghty's progress and it is significant that the young man's mentor at Irish is Mike Catt, who is one of the old hands recalled to the England ranks, quite rightly in my opinion.
There are so many options on offer in the back division and Catt, with a guardian's role at No 12, is one of them. I expected Andy Farrell to be in the squad and I fully expect him to be in the team one day. There is no better equipped footballer in England to be No 12. Catt is the only one to match him and Olly Barkley is another option, but does either offer more in the long run? If Farrell achieves his potential and has a straight up-and-down centre like Mike Tindall or Jamie Noon alongside him, think what a balance that would be.
Jason Robinson's return is yet another move I approve. England need a gain-line breaker, and at least he can add some crowd-lifting excitement. If he can hit a bit of form and can be joined in that by Iain Balshaw and Mark Cueto, England would suddenly have a challenging back-three again. All they need is for a couple of combinations to develop behind the scrum and they could be building something worthy.
Up front, with Vickery finding form, Steve Thompson back, George Chuter maintaining his progress and big lumps like Danny Grewcock and Tom Palmer around it wouldn't take much to turn them into a force again. All through their recent problems I never once thought they had reached such a state that they could not turn it around fairly quickly. If, young and old, they all see this a fresh opportunity to be grabbed eagerly it wouldn't require a miracle to give them a new lift-off.
And if you want to look forward to the World Cup, the likely quarter-finalists in one half of the draw are Wales, Australia, England and South Africa. I feel that South Africa will be a major force, but by then I reckon they'll all be capable of beating each other. If that is the case, anything can happen.
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