Just as Brian Ashton was wrestling with the most difficult conundrum of his coaching career – should he, or should he not, drop a profoundly out-of-sorts Jonny Wilkinson from the England team for this Saturday's important Six Nations meeting with Ireland? – his opposite number in France was cheerfully giving the elbow to the man judged largely responsible for the Tricolores' victory over Italy on Sunday. Marc Lièvremont's decision to omit the wing Aurelien Rougerie from the climactic match with the Grand Slam-chasing Welsh was entirely unexpected, yet it said pretty much everything about the respective moods in London and Paris.
Lièvremont has spent the entire campaign experimenting: four scrum-halves have been used, along with five props, five locks, three hookers and three No 8s. The former Test flanker has been called all sorts of names and was roundly accused of selectorial and tactical naïvety following the home defeat by England in the third round of fixtures. Yet it is he, rather than the more conservative Ashton, who has a puncher's chance of landing the title this weekend and he began his planning process yesterday by springing another surprise.
Half a dozen of the 22-man squad on duty against the Azzurri have disappeared, only two of whom – the impressive young centre Yann David and the flanker Ibrahim Diarra – are struggling with knocks. A couple of inexperienced forwards, Guillem Guirardo and Louis Picamoles, have been dropped, as has the scrum-half Julien Tomas. These are hardly earth-shattering developments, given the qualities of William Servat, Thierry Dusautoir, Elvis Vermeulen and the influential half-back Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, fit again after injury.
However, Rougerie's sudden fall from grace, 24 hours after putting a try past the Italians and going within a gnat's crotchet of scoring a second, is straight out of left field. "This is not a sanction," Lièvremont said. "I know certain players will be disappointed, but these changes were anticipated before the match with Italy."
It is clear that the coach considers the quick-witted Vincent Clerc, rather than the heavily built Rougerie, to be better suited to the task of confronting the Welsh wing Shane Williams, whose world-class finishing has been at the heart of the Red Dragonhood's surge to the top of the standings.
By comparison, Ashton's decision to stick by some of the old stagers who did him proud at the World Cup last autumn appears cautious in the extreme, especially now England are nothing more than a Six Nations irrelevance as a consequence of their inept performance at Murrayfield. One or two have been shown the door during the course of the tournament – no one seriously expects to see Andy Gomarsall or Mark Regan again. But the really big calls surrounding the Wilkinsons and Vickerys have yet to be made, hence the coach's long spell of soul-searching before the squad regathered in Bath yesterday evening.
Ashton has a free hand to do what he will: he could replace Wilkinson with the young miscreant Danny Cipriani, or restore Cipriani to the full-back role he would have performed in Edinburgh but for his well-documented nocturnal activities and give Charlie Hodgson another run in the pivot position. But Jonny-boy, the individual who provides Twickenham Man with his faith and hope (if not his charity) is a mighty big player to cast aside. The crowd in south-west London could easily turn on Ashton if he does the deed and then finishes second to a ho-hum band of Irishmen.
The Rugby Football Union issued a warning about forged tickets for the game after a buyer splashed out £2,000 on the black market and came unstuck. "Single tickets are exchanging hands for £1,400 and black-market customers could be seriously out of pocket if our security measures prevent their entry to the ground," said Paul Vaughan, the union's business and operations director.Reuse content