The Six Nations Interview: Balshaw has sights set on renaissance

Brian Ashton's favourite full-back tells Chris Hewett that tonight's encounter in Paris offers a perfect opportunity for England to match the French for flair
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The Independent Online

Iain Balshaw has always been able to bank on the support of the England coach, Brian Ashton, no bad thing for a player with international ambitions, as Mr Joshua Lewsey of Wasps would no doubt acknowledge, albeit through gritted teeth. The current England full-back's relationship with the good folk of Gloucester has not always been so positive. "I remember playing my first game for the club at Kingsholm and twisting my ankle just before half-time," Balshaw recalled this week. "As I was being treated, someone shouted from the Shed: 'We play for 80 minutes here, Balshaw, not bloody 40'. It was sweet of him, I think you'll agree."

England should track down that master of West Country oratory, pay his fare to Paris, stick him on a soapbox in a corner of their dressing room at Stade de France and get him to repeat those sentiments ahead of tonight's Six Nations contest with the tournament leaders. The beaten World Cup finalists have played 160 minutes of rugby in the tournament to date, and the last 100 of them have veered from the desperate to the ho-hum and back again. What, pray, is going on?

"I'd say there's a fair bit of frustration in the air," admitted Balshaw, born in Blackburn and raised, in the sporting sense, in Bath, where he first entered Ashton's orbit. (The coach had been watching his son play a schools game in Lancashire when he first clapped eyes on his protégé-to-be, tripping the light fantastic on an adjacent pitch. An invitation to the Recreation Ground followed, pretty much immediately). "The thing is, we know we're a good side – good enough to have had both our Six Nations matches almost wrapped up by half-time. When you turn around 16-6 up, as we did against Wales, or 20-6 up, as we did against Italy, the rest should be straightforward. We should have put both of those teams to the sword.

"The fact that we lost one match and had to scrap away in the last few minutes to win the other means we have a problem. I can't put my finger on the reason why, but we've been guilty of taking our foot off the gas. The mistakes don't help: we've made a couple of filthy great big ones – I had that kick charged down in the Wales game, which cost us – and lots of smaller ones, loose passes and turnovers. All I know is that we'll need to be on our mettle against the French, because they'll give you a rare old dicking if they sense you're not fully tuned."

There are those, not least in and around the Wasps club, who question Balshaw's value to this England side. They think Lewsey should be a shoo-in. Even Dave Ellis, chief defensive strategist to the French side and once a familiar figure at Gloucester, has been heard pontificating on the subject. He feels that a Wasp of the younger generation, Danny Cipriani, should be the last line of resistance against Vincent Clerc, Cédric Heymans and company tonight.

Balshaw does not give so much as a tuppenny damn about these opinions, partly because he goes out of his way to avoid public opinion – "I don't read the papers because they talk you up one day and give you a complete bagging the next, and even though people are entitled to their view, I don't listen to more than about five per cent of those who talk about rugby," he said – and partly because he has an ally of considerable influence at the top end of the England operation. The way he sees it, he must be doing something right if the head coach keeps picking him. It is not an unreasonable position to take.

Ashton has convinced himself that if England are to play the way he wants them to play, they need Balshaw, or someone very like him, offering a cutting edge from deep. Lewsey is not like Balshaw at all, and the coach has pretty much given up on him as a Test full-back. Mark Cueto of Sale? He too is more of a wing in Ashton's book. Mathew Tait of Newcastle? A mere apprentice in the position. Olly Morgan, the other international full-back at Gloucester? Good, but always injured. Nick Abendanon of Bath? Not ready defensively, as he proved beyond all doubt in a Premiership game last weekend.

Which leaves Cipriani. Now we're talking. Yet there have been one or two hints over the last couple of days that the selectors are looking long and hard at Jonny Wilkinson's contribution in the No 10 shirt. Should Saint Jonny be pensioned off over the course of the next half-dozen matches – oh, heresy of heresies – Ashton will need Cipriani in midfield rather than in the back field.

When pressed on his loyalty to Balshaw, the coach goes all misty-eyed and starts talking about the 2001 Six Nations campaign, when England ripped through four rounds, of a Championship disrupted and distorted by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, at a rate in excess of seven tries and 50 points a game. Balshaw helped himself to five tries, generally playing like one of the blessed. It was at the start of that championship that Clive Woodward, with Ashton's enthusiastic backing, promoted him ahead of his then Bath colleague Matt Perry – certainly the most dependable and probably the most accomplished England full-back of the last 30 years.

Perry would turn the tables later in the season, when the British and Irish Lions toured Australia and Balshaw fell apart, his confidence in shreds. How does he look back on that grand rivalry with a player whose blue-collar virtues of defensive mastery, reliability in contact and unshakeable consistency were at odds with his own more flamboyant gifts?

"Actually, I'm not sure we saw it as a rivalry," he replied. "At Bath, he generally played at full-back, with me on the wing. I was quite happy with the arrangement. I was selected ahead of him in that year's Six Nations, but as has been well documented, he had much the better of the Lions tour. He played some outstanding stuff in Australia and deserved all the plaudits. I know I was meant to be the faster mover, but Matt was nowhere near as slow as people made him out to be."

While Ashton believes Balshaw is playing his best international rugby since those halcyon days at the turn of the century, producing as evidence his open-field running during England's excellent first-half performance against the Welsh earlier this month, the player himself is beginning to climb the walls. February has not been kind to him. That one, over-egged clearance kick at Twickenham will be remembered long after his elusive running has been forgotten (especially by those on the far side of the Severn), while the match with Italy bored him silly. "That wasn't the best of afternoons," he said. "Nothing happened."

Then there was Gloucester's defeat at Bristol six days ago – an unforeseen development that left Balshaw's club coach, the formidable Dean Ryan, in a mood best described as toxic. "God, he let rip," said the full-back. "He came into the dressing room and told us to stop what we were doing, sit down, shut up and bloody well listen. I can't say I blamed him, because we'd been awful. We'd done none of the things we'd planned to do, and that tends to go down badly with coaches. Quite frankly, I could do with being on the winning side this weekend. I'd like to get to the end of a game feeling good about things."

On his own admission, he is still an impatient so and so. "I can get seriously annoyed when I'm not seeing much of the ball, even if the team is going well," he admitted. "In that sense, I haven't changed at all. But I'm more realistic about the sport now than I was during my days at Bath. It comes with age and experience, I suppose. Back then, I'd try to force things in an effort to get involved. I don't force it any more. If it's not on, I don't try to do it. The way rugby is now, you have to pick your moments if you don't want to look a prat."

Realistically, then, how does he read this little tête-à-tête with France – and, indeed, the rest of the championship? "I'll answer the last point first," he replied. "If we win our remaining three matches, we'll win the tournament. I'm sure of it. This game in Paris is a tough one, though. They're all tough these days, to be honest with you. I know we played poorly in that second half against Italy, but people who expected us to flounce over to Rome and give them a quick hiding simply didn't understand the nature of the challenge. Eight years ago, when the Italians first came into the tournament, 80-point victories were feasible. They're not feasible now. Italy are a quality side, improving fast. I'd have settled for a one-point victory before kick-off.

"And now we have France, with their unfamiliar personnel and their determination to play it as they see it. They have 22 footballers in their squad. I don't care if the bloke has No 15 on his back or No 5, he can play. But we have some footballers too, and we want to express ourselves just as they do. As I said, we know we're a good side. If there is a better time to prove it to the people who pay to watch us, I can't think of it."