Vickery set to gain from Ashton's cautious instincts

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton's first act on succeeding his one-time protg Andy Robinson as head coach of England a year or so ago was to phone Phil Vickery, the World Cup-winning prop with a long history of career-threatening injuries and an equally long history of recovering from them, and offer him the captaincy. It seemed a good call at the time, and appeared even more inspired when Vickery played a blinder in dragging the team kicking and screaming into a second successive global final.

Today, when Ashton names a fresh 32-man squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, which begins with a nice little tête-à-tête with Wales at the start of next month, much interest will be focused on Vickery and his place in the great scheme of things. The Wasps tight-head prop is bound to be included, despite recent problems of the orthopaedic and disciplinary varieties, but another tour of duty as captain? That is slightly less of a dead cert.

Matt Stevens, whose World Cup form in Vickery's early absence through suspension was very nearly good enough to bring about a permanent changing of the guard, has not let up since his return from France. Indeed, his precise and powerful performance for Bath against Gloucester amid a West Country monsoon last Friday was of the very highest class. If England are serious about making the best of the most potent young footballing prop in Europe, they must pension off the old guy sooner rather than later.

Should they do it now, though? It is one of the more difficult decisions facing Ashton as he prepares for the meeting with Wales. If the coach wants Stevens as his starting prop, two of Vickery's fellow veterans of the 2003 triumph, Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Tindall, will contest the captaincy, with Wilkinson the marginal favourite. Another obvious candidate, the ever-reliable Martin Corry, cashed in his chips yesterday by announcing his retirement from international rugby. If, however, Ashton decides to stick with the front-row status quo, Vickery will lead the side at Twickenham on 2 February.

Ashton may have a reputation as a free-thinking graduate of the Carwyn James-Pierre Villepreux school of rugby philosophy, but he can be a conservative so-and-so when the mood takes him. He is not of a mind to perform major surgery on the team ahead of this Six Nations "People seem to forget that we're halfway through a season," he said recently, "and if you're talking about building a side ahead of the 2011 World Cup, we won't start thinking about that until 2009 at the earliest" and seems likely to stick with the majority of those who served in France last autumn.

Of course, a proportion of that World Cup squad is no longer available to him: Jason Robinson has played his last game of rugby, Mike Catt and Lawrence Dallaglio are in international retirement and Shaun Perry is injured. Ashton will miss Corry, the back-row forward from Leicester, more acutely than any of that quartet, with the possible exception of Robinson. The coach's words yesterday made that crystal clear. "From a purely selfish point of view, I am really disappointed Martin will no longer be featuring," he said. "I know, as many others do, that he has worn the white shirt with pride and dignity. He has been an outstanding member of the team, on and off the field, for a long period of time and has captained England a number of times, often in difficult circumstances. He always led from the front in his own inimitable fashion, and he will be sorely missed." Ashton has not always waxed so lyrical about his senior players.

Corry informed the coach of his decision when Ashton offered him a place in the Six Nations squad, explaining that if he was serious about prolonging his career at club level, he could not continue "doing it all". There was no arguing with his logic and, with Leicester producing another exceptional blind-side flanker in Tom Croft, few could blame Corry for taking the Dallaglio approach and withdrawing from Test consideration while it was still his decision to make.