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From the Front Row: Like Ashton, England's ability to put the manaway comes from the dark side of great divide
Sunday 13 February 2011
In the interests of openness and honesty I will conform to stereotype: I tuned in yesterday to watch the scrummaging battle between Italy's gnarled, seasoned gargoyles and England's new kids on the block. The problem was that hardly anyone dropped the ball, so there were hardly any scrums at all. I nearly turned it off.
Then Chris Ashton got the ball. Without wishing to heap pressure on his shoulders, he is rapidly becoming the new Jason Robinson; the man who, when he gets the ball, causes millions of people to hold their breath, expecting something special. There are possibly quicker wings out there; certainly there are bigger ones. But at the moment there are no better ones. And I put this down to two things: pure talent and his rugby league background.
Ashton's ability to materialise in the right place at the right time is instinctive – top-class players train for years and get nowhere near his level of repeated execution. His seemingly insatiable desire for the ball cannot be coached either. So what has rugby league to do with anything? Well, in league there is, naturally, more room. This gives the ball carrier more space either side of his defender at which to run, and this in turn makes it easier to get one's arms free in the contact. Add to the equation the fact that with fewer players on the park there is less cover in the back-field when a clean break is made and the mid-tackle offload becomes an almost priceless weapon in the 13-man game.
With these factors in mind, take a second to consider the performances of Ashton and the England centre Shontayne Hape yesterday. These were two men using their brains by playing to their strengths. Hape worked his feet just enough to put his would-be tackler on to his heels, then attacked his arms (and in the process avoided any momentum-killing, head-on impact). He looked to release the ball to anyone in a white shirt who had sufficient foresight to arrive. He needed to look no further than Ashton, the arch predator who has, since the beginning, recognised the value of skills like Hape's and hovered like a buzzard. It is a habit honed in Wigan.
We saw Nick Easter put his captain, Mike Tindall, in for a try with a quite sumptuous piece of skill; offloading backwards while being knocked to the floor. It was this snapshot that best summed up the difference between the two teams. Whenever Italy's forwards – the truly majestic Sergio Parisse aside – got the ball, they seemed hell bent on finding someone to run into. They seemed gripped by a fear of turning the ball over, into the hands of an England side who did not hide their directly opposing approach.
It isn't that the Italians do not have the ability to wreck defensive systems with gain-line plays like those England used time and again – they just don't look to have that mindset. Most players, unconsciously, put ego first and charge at defenders, looking to dominate. Sometimes this is just what needs to be done, but the best players have more up their sleeves than pure machismo. Given the chance, a world-class player would rather avoid such confrontations and leave you grappling for grip as he sets his mate free.
Of course it helps if you have mitts the size of those belonging to Sonny Bill Williams, plugged on to impossibly long arms. But really it is all about attitude. The attritional nature of the Aviva Premiership and its often-ghastly weather means that it is easier to truck it up and play safe. So to see the national team striving to expand beyond the norm should offer great hope in World Cup year.
So if there were ever a moment to acknowledge the enemy, now is the time. England are firing and two of the main men behind their rise to form have come to us from the dark side. If you liked what you saw yesterday at Twickenham, perhaps you ought to watch more rugby league. Actually, don't bother. You won't see any scrums there either.
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