Brian Ashton: An Ashton making the headlines? Long may this continue

Tackling The Issues

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.

Win an exclusive Doom Bar t-shirt!

Do you think you know your rugby? Do you want to make your voice heard? Do you want to win a sharp Sharp's t-shirt?

Tell us what you think about the state of the game in the comments below, and you could be in with a shot at winning a particularly snazzy Doom Bar t-shirt. Over the next month, Online sports editor Simon Rice will be watching the comments under Brian Ashton's Saturday columns like a hawk, looking out for the most interesting, thoughtful and provocative comments from readers. Is Brian on the money, or is he talking nonsense? What's wrong with the England team, who's going to win the Premier League, and are New Zealand really unbeatable?

Then, in March, after a month's heated debate, Simon will pick his favourite comment to win that coveted shirt. What are you waiting for? Put the rugby world to rights.

Entrants must be aged 18 or over. Terms and conditions apply.

If you have any problems posting your comments, you can also email your entry to onlinecompetitions@independent.co.uk

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most