Once again, I am thrilled to see my name in the headlines – and for wholly positive reasons, too.
Admittedly, the Christian name belongs to some other Ashton, of whom I shall say more later, but as those in the midst of the celebrity whirl never cease to point out, all publicity is good publicity, irrespective of the fine detail. England's victory over Italy also had its thrilling aspects: there has been a transformative air about the side for the last 10 months or so, and while Martin Johnson is absolutely right in saying that this is not the finished article and that nothing has yet been won, there can be no denying that some of the rugby played just recently has been very watchable.
There was the sharpest of contrasts between events at Twickenham a week ago and those in Rome this time last year: a game I remember chiefly for the fact that my wife and I found ourselves surrounded by passionate Azzurri supporters while the blustery wind played havoc with the temporary seating high up in Stadio Flaminio. The 2010 match was a desperate affair, dominated by turgid set-piece play, mind-numbing "through the phases" stuff and a call-based "playbook" approach to the attacking game that prized territorial position above all else. Now the emphasis seems to have switched to speed of ball at the tackle area and keeping defences on the move.
I have always maintained that if defenders hate anything, it is having to think, communicate and move simultaneously. Increasingly, the England players are finding ways of creating mismatches in space and exploiting those mismatches with more than one runner. The securing of possession is seen as an opportunity to be proactive, rather than as a means of cramping the style of the opposition.
Where, when, why and how this change came about is, to my mind, wholly irrelevant. The important point to be made is that the environment in which the current players operate appears to be one of positivity and enjoyment – two things guaranteed to help bring out the best in people. Of course, this does not mean that attention to basics has been abandoned, or ever should be. It simply strikes me that the nuts and bolts aspect of the sport has been restored to its proper place, as the foundation on which the best of rugby can be constructed. The realisation that there is more to winning big games than merely doing things as rehearsed at the organisational level is a significant step forward.
Martin does not strike me as the kind of manager who likes to look backwards, but I suspect he would relish the chance to replay the November Test against South Africa in light of the improvements delivered over the first two rounds of the Six Nations. This being World Cup year, the real battlegrounds – matches against the least forgiving, most accomplished opposition – are still to be reached, and England have yet to prove they can discover a way of playing and prospering in such challenging circumstances. This is a critical juncture, because it would be only too easy for those running the show to drop back into traditional coach-speak and talk about "winning the physicality" as the be all and end all. Believe me, there are many other factors to be considered and avenues to be explored.
No one embodies the different approach we have seen of late more than the exuberant Chris Ashton. Brought up in the league hotbed of Wigan, he plays rugby union as he played the "other" game, with one clear purpose in mind: to score tries. He's making a pretty good job of it, clearly. Mark Cueto, his fellow wing, remarked at the weekend that Ashton can expect to be a heavily marked man from here on in, and that comment will be haunting the coaching teams of Wales of Italy, who could not find ways of marking him nearly closely enough. They missed a trick or two, certainly, but closing down someone like this is far from easy.
Is it really a year since I highlighted, in this column, the threat Ashton posed? So much has happened since. Back then, I mentioned that knowing about him and dealing with him were two very different things. How do you track a player who combines such high degrees of instinct and intelligence when it comes to reading a defence: virtues that allow him to react late – dangerously late from the opposition point of view – to changes in a dynamic situation unfolding no more than five or 10 metres away from him? He is a master of attacking from depth in unusual areas of the field and at acute angles. He also has a very high work rate and a boundless desire to put his hands on the ball.
For obvious reasons – I am an Englishman, after all – I have no intention of going into detail on how he might be stopped. Suffice to say that rival teams will have to find a means of attacking England in ways that remove Ashton as an option, or at least limit his opportunity for involvement. Not all teams will roll over and have their tummies tickled in the way Italy did, with their non-functioning line-out and the matador-like approach to tackling demonstrated by the outside-half Luciano Orquera. There are far tougher challenges ahead, both in this Six Nations and beyond. But I hope and trust that England will not abandon this journey upon which they've started.
Tasty prospect of Super 15 critics having to eat their words
Up here in the northern hemisphere, it has become almost de rigueur in some circles to denigrate the southern hemisphere Super 15 tournament, as it now becomes known with the addition of the Melbourne Rebels – to dismiss it as something less than "real rugby". The critics continue to insist there is too much emphasis on such worthless pursuits as scoring tries, with insufficient importance being given to defence, set-piece work and the element they put at the heart of the union game: the "collision".
If memory serves, the teams from the south did OK when they came to Europe in November, and I for one will enjoy watching and learning from this year's tournament, which begins this weekend. Apart from anything else, there are a couple of interesting British recruits down there in Melbourne: Gareth Delve and someone by the name of Cipriani. I rather think they'll consider it "real rugby" by the time the first round is over.
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