Tait left in world of his own as ruthless Ashton gets tough

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The Independent Online

Mathew Tait is not one of life's natural depressives, but he would be less than human if he did not feel just a little victimised right now. Less than four months after playing a blinder for England in the World Cup final, during which he went within millimetres of scoring one of the great tries in the history of international rugby, the most gifted attacking runner of the new red-rose generation finds himself so far out of favour that he cannot even make the bench for this weekend's opening Six Nations match with Wales at Twickenham.

Mike Tindall, of Gloucester, who missed the global gathering last autumn through injury, will play at outside centre – the role Tait was selected to perform against the Springboks when England staged their last-ditch defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy in Paris. While this development had been heavily predicted, it was widely anticipated that Tait would get a run in his secondary position of full-back – or, at the very least, be included among the seven replacements. Two more Gloucester players, Iain Balshaw and Lesley Vainikolo (an English-qualified Tongan from New Zealand, no less), put paid to those ideas. Remarkably, the three backs on the bench will not have a single cap between them.

The decision to ditch Tait altogether resurrected memories of his equally abrupt demise after the 2005 encounter with Wales in Cardiff – the match in which he made his international debut, 24 hours before his 19th birthday. On that occasion, an encouraging performance in a poorly selected side was blighted by two dump-truck tackles from Gavin Henson, neither of which were anywhere near as devastating as some people imagined. England lost the game and Tait was dropped like a handful of hot cinders – an error of judgement to which Andy Robinson, then the head coach, subsequently pleaded guilty.

A double whammy, then – one that overshadowed the sudden promotion of Luke Narraway, the uncapped 24-year-old Gloucester No 8, to England's back row and the equally striking decision to demote Ben Kay, a veteran of two World Cup finals, from the engine room of the pack and replace him with Steve Borthwick, currently a figure of some controversy following his decision to leave Bath for Saracens at the end of the season.

"One break in one game of rugby doesn't make a player an automatic selection for England," said Brian Ashton, the head coach, in response to fierce questioning about Tait. "Mathew did a good job for us in the World Cup final, but things have changed, including the whole balance of the back division. We feel we want someone in midfield who can take it to the opposition when the going gets tough, and Tindall is very definitely that type of player. He's probably the form No 13 in the Premiership and he would have been out first choice in the position last autumn had he been fit.

"So that's dealt with one issue. Full-back? Mathew is still learning about full-back play, and I'm not sure it's a great idea to put someone in so exposed a position in a Six Nations environment when they have so little experience. Besides, Balshaw has made his best start to a season since 2000, and we all know how good he was then. As for the bench, we're keen to have a real impact player there. I think the word 'impact' fits pretty well with Vainikolo."

Narraway's emergence is a classic example of needs-must selection. As Ashton confessed, the injuries affecting the World Cup No 8 Nick Easter, the long-serving Joe Worsley and the newcomer Tom Croft, allied to the recent retirements of Martin Corry and Lawrence Dallaglio, left him somewhat bereft of options in the middle of the back row. But Narraway, a strapping graduate from the same Kingsholm school of hard knocks that produced the likes of Mike Teague in the dim and distant past, is no mean operator. His defensive performance in the big Heineken Cup tie against Ospreys late last year provided conclusive confirmation of his rapid development under Dean Ryan, the Gloucester head coach who played his international rugby at No 8 and knows all there is to know about the unique demands of the position.

If England have a major tactical concern ahead of this most awkward of encounters, it has nothing to do with the presence of a debutant among the loose forwards. Ashton and his colleagues know full well that the line-out will be the crucial theatre of action, hence their decision to give Borthwick the nod over Kay. Borthwick is regarded as the finest line-out forward in the country, both in terms of individual ball-winning and in the plotting of a strategic approach to pilfering opposition ball. Kay came up short in the World Cup final, when the Springboks dominated the English jumpers to an embarrassing degree, and he has paid the price.

"Borthwick was a very angry young man at the end of that tournament," Ashton said. "He felt he'd been underused and he made his feelings clear. We feel he's playing very well at present, not just in the tight phases where we know he's strong but also around the field. This is his big opportunity, and he understands that. The line-out will be an important part of this contest."

Paul Sackey, the Wasps wing who went down with mumps a couple of weeks ago and threatened to bring the rest of the squad out in sympathy, did not train yesterday, despite being passed fit. "He's been ill, so there's no point pushing him over the edge," Ashton explained. "There's no question about his readiness for the weekend."

A handful of others sat out the afternoon session, including the captain Phil Vickery – "Phil trains once a day, not twice, and he was there in the morning session," said the coach – and the lock Simon Shaw, who is nearing full recovery from an ankle injury but remains a touch fragile. As with Sackey, there is no serious doubt that Shaw will start the game.

England

15 I Balshaw (Gloucester)

14 P Sackey (Wasps)

13 M Tindall (Gloucester)

12 T Flood (Newcastle)

11 D Strettle (Harlequins)

10 J Wilkinson (Newcastle)

9 A Gomarsall (Harlequins)

1 A Sheridan (Sale)

2 M Regan (Bristol)

3 P Vickery (Wasps, capt)

4 S Shaw (Wasps)

5 S Borthwick (Bath)

6 J Haskell (Wasps)

7 L Moody (Leicester)

8 L Narraway (Gloucester)

Replacements: L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), T Rees (Wasps), R Wigglesworth (Sale), D Cipriani (Wasps), L Vainikolo (Gloucester).

Wales

15 L Byrne (Ospreys)

14 S Williams (Ospreys)

13 S Parker (Ospreys)

12 G Henson (Ospreys)

11 M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets)

10 J Hook (Ospreys)

9 M Phillips (Ospreys)

1 D Jones (Ospreys)

2 H Bennett (Ospreys)

3 A Jones (Ospreys)

4 I Gough (Ospreys)

5 A-W Jones (Ospreys)

6 J Thomas (Ospreys)

7 M Williams (Cardiff Blues)

8 R Jones (Ospreys, capt)

Replacements: M Rees (Scarlets), G Jenkins (Blues), I Evans (Ospreys), A Popham (Scarlets), G Cooper (Gloucester), S Jones (Scarlets), T Shanklin (Blues).

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