Vickery in charge as Robinson returns to the fold

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton played no active role in England's capture of the World Cup in Australia a little over three years ago, but he has extremely strong views on which players from that outstanding vintage might mount a worthwhile defence of the trophy in France this coming autumn.

Phil Vickery, the yeoman prop forward from the West Country, will lead the team into the tournament; Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson, the men who scored the points that mattered, are back in the international frame after recovering from their respective outbreaks of injury and premature retirement.

As ever, there are losers as well as winners. Three other men who played significant roles on that famous night in Sydney - the wing Ben Cohen, the lock Ben Kay and the celebrated No 8 and former captain Lawrence Dallaglio - have been dumped, from a very considerable height. Cohen and Kay find themselves in a second-string England Saxons squad as a consequence of their below-par efforts in the November international series that cost Andy Robinson his job as head coach and saw Ashton replace his own protégé. Dallaglio, meanwhile, has been omitted altogether.

Not even Dallaglio's closest friends would argue that his current form justified inclusion in the senior squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, but they would certainly have expected him to find a place among the best 65 players in the country. Ashton sees it differently, as he sees so many things differently, and as a result of his bold and devisive first utterance as top man, it is difficult to imagine the Wasps captain representing his country again.

In many ways, this is a high-risk selection. Wilkinson, so stricken by injury that he has not played for England since dropping the goal that beat the Wallabies in the 2003 World Cup final, has only recently resumed training after recovering from a kidney problem suffered during a Premiership match two months ago.

There is no guarantee he will be playing half-decent club rugby on 3 February, when England face Scotland in the Calcutta Cup match, let alone be pushing for an international recall. And Jason Robinson? His volte-face has been on the cards since the start of the season, but he is asking a great deal of himself to relaunch a Test career at 32.

Perhaps the biggest gamble surrounds the new captain. Vickery is no stranger to the role, having performed it twice before, and there is no doubt as to his standing among his fellow professionals. In many ways, he is the obvious choice to replace Martin Corry, that paragon of honest endeavour who inevitably became tainted by the culture of failure surrounding the Robinson regime. But Vickery's injury record is very nearly as dire as Wilkinson's. The surgeons must be sick of the sight of him; so too the physiotherapists, who currently have the pleasure of treating him for a bruised buttock.

"Phil is a player of massive experience who has been at the top of the world and has a great desire to lead England back there again," Ashton explained. "He showed in the autumn that he is the right man to take England forward. Martin Corry handled the captaincy situation really well in what was a difficult period, and I thank him for that. He is still a vital member of the elite player squad and we will be looking to him for support and advice in what will be a very challenging year."

Vickery credited Corry for the strength of his performance in adversity. "Everyone knows what a fantastic guy Martin is; he led from the front when he was getting a lot of stick and I feel very privileged to follow him," he said. "I am under no illusions about the challenge we all face, but I want to be part of a successful team and this is a huge opportunity for people to stake their claim. It's a huge honour."

World Cup-winning veterans aside, there are several surprises in Ashton's selection. Chris Jones, the Sale lock who enjoyed some shining moments in the darkness of the November series, has been demoted to the Saxons squad, as have the Worcester flanker Pat Sanderson and the Gloucester centre Anthony Allen.

Olly Barkley, the gifted Bath midfielder whom many saw as a potential answer to England's principal problem position of inside centre, is also among the second-besters. It seems Mike Catt, one of Ashton's favourite players, and Andy Farrell, the former rugby league specialist making his way in the union game with Saracens, will push for consideration at No 12.

There are three uncapped players in the 33-strong Six Nations party: the Wasps open-side flanker Tom Rees, the Bristol No 8 Dan Ward-Smith and the 21-year-old London Irish outside-half Shane Geraghty.

Ward-Smith, the form player in the Premiership in recent weeks, has moved ahead of Gloucester's James Forrester in the pecking order and may put pressure on Corry for a starting place come Calcutta Cup day. Rees has been pushing for some time and could also feature.

Geraghty is a longer shot, although his promotion has done for another so-called "senior" player, the Leicester stand-off Andy Goode, who started the last game against South Africa, having helped England to beat the same opponents the previous weekend.

He might have expected Ashton to give him another chance to fail, but Ashton is not obviously the man to give second chances to anyone.

England squad for Six Nations

Backs: I Balshaw (Gloucester), M Catt (London Irish), M Cueto (Sale Sharks), H Ellis (Leicester Tigers), A Farrell (Saracens), T Flood (Newcastle Falcons), S Geraghty (London Irish), J Lewsey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle Falcons), S Perry (Bristol), J Robinson (Sale Sharks), P Richards (Gloucester), P Sackey (Wasps), M Tait (Newcastle Falcons), M Tindall (Gloucester), J Wilkinson (Newcastle Falcons).

Forwards: A Brown (Gloucester), G Chuter, M Corry, L Deacon (all Leicester Tigers), P Freshwater (Perpignan), D Grewcock (Bath), M Lund (Sale Sharks), L Mears (Bath), L Moody (Leicester Tigers), T Payne (Wasps), T Palmer (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), D Ward-Smith (Bristol), J White (Leicester Tigers), J Worsley (Wasps).