Wanted: right-hand man for Charlie

One dimension is nowhere near enough as the World Cup countdown begins
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The Independent Online

If only it were that simple. England had a great chance to knock New Zealand out of their stride at Twickenham and failed to take it. "It was very frustrating," Andy Robinson reflected. "We had lots of possession and didn't finish. We've got to be more ruthless. We can build on the positives of that performance. That is the benchmark we must move forward from towards the World Cup but we've got to find a cutting edge." The coach's view was echoed almost word for word by his captain, Martin Corry.

England monopolised the ball against Australia and scored two tries to one; they also commanded the lion's share of possession against the All Blacks and in the 23-19 defeat scored only one try, exclusively through the forwards, and conceded two. For yesterday's conclusion to the autumn series, against Samoa, Robinson took the opportunity to tinker with his team, pairing James Simpson-Daniel at centre with Mike Tindall. He had to try something.

The previous combination of Tindall, described by Robinson as the "heartbeat" of the team, and Jamie Noon looked like two peas, of the mushy variety, from the same pod. Plenty of biff and bang but very little wallop. Subtlety is not their game. Outside them, Ben Cohen looked hungry again and Mark Cueto's clinching try against the Wallabies was top notch. Cueto has benefited from playing in a Sale side who are beginning to look real contenders on a number of fronts, and the same goes for Charlie Hodgson.

Finally freed of being cast as Jonny Wilkinson's shadow, Hodgson hardly put a foot wrong against the Wallabies and the All Blacks, his most mature performances to date. All that was missing last weekend was a Daniel Carter-like break but only one stand-off can gain the title of international player of the year.

Wilkinson has not played for England since his World Cup drop goal in Sydney two years ago and to go with neck, shoulder, arm, knee and appendix problems, he is now recovering from a hernia operation and is not expected to play for Newcastle until the day after Boxing Day. For an appendix to his career read the Lancet.

When he returns, Wilkinson will give Robinson something else to think about. Does he play him, as the Lions did, at inside centre or are we invited to think the unthinkable that, at the age of 26, Wilkinson's Test career is behind him?

When Tindall was at outside centre to Will Greenwood all was right in England's world. It wasn't just that Jonny was amassing a mountain of points; prior to the World Cup the Red Rose cavalry cut defences to ribbons and Greenwood, all guile and strength, and Cohen and Jason Robinson scored a phenomenal number of tries. Nobody could live with them.

Greenwood's career took a dive when his club Harlequins were relegated and although he says he is still available for England he's out of sight and out of Andy Robinson's mind. However, if England were only missing Will and Jason their lack of a cutting edge could be rectified. No, the man they are finding irreplaceable is currently on a walking holiday in Lancashire.

England, even when they were winning the World Cup, have not been the same since Brian Ashton left Twickenham in 2002 to head the national academy. When he was coaching the backs they were scoring an average of five tries a game and winning by 40 points. I wanted to talk to Ashton but the Rugby Football Union - he is contracted to them until the end of the year when he takes over the coaching at Bath - have gagged him.

This, though, is Ashton's philosophy on the academy and the stars of tomorrow: "We look for challenging, ambitious, technically accurate and unpredictable play that is different. The players know the more licence they have on the field to interpret the game the higher the standards demanded of them. It's all about giving players freedom. We want to show Andy Robinson that these young players are as good as some in the senior team."

Joe Lydon, Ashton's successor at Twickenham, has not, thus far, produced anything different or unpredictable. The reverse is true and it probably has something to do with Lydon's rugby league background. The games, especially in regards to ball retention and recycling, are completely different.

In the absence of the old back row of Richard Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back, which suited Ashton's game plan perfectly, the Lydon model of attack is too lateral, has no depth and is as flat as a pancake. In short, the style's gone.

It has not helped that England have made some awful blunders at centre in trying to find the right combination. This time last year Henry Paul, a league convert who was highly rated by Lydon and Robinson, was being substituted. Subsequently for the Six Nations - a disastrous campaign for which England were odds-on favourites - Robinson threw in Mathew Tait for the opening game against Wales in Cardiff.

Tait was replaced after being picked up by Gavin Henson as though, as Henson said: "I was moving a shop window dummy". He added: "Mathew was an 18-year-old making his debut. I didn't know much about him although Colin Charvis singled him out as an exciting prospect and I studied some clips. I could see that Mathew was a quality player with quick feet and good hands. I couldn't help thinking about his age. Eighteen! Here was a kid five years younger than me." T-shirts were produced showing Henson holding Tait in mid-air. "Mathew shouldn't mind too much," Henson said. "He's going to be a very good player for England and I know that one day he'll get his revenge."

If Tait, who has come through Ashton's academy, is not scarred for life he is precisely the sort of player England will need for their defence of the World Cup in 2007. Robinson laments the fact that his team were far too conservative in the Six Nations and neither did they let their imagination run riot against the Wallabies and the All Blacks, even when those two had players in the sin-bin.

England have to find a balance, and get the timing right, between playing safe and playing the Tait card. They will not win the Six Nations, let alone retain the Webb Ellis Trophy, without taking some risks.


Jonny Wilkinson, Newcastle

The most celebrated player in the history of English rugby started by being shepherded by Rob Andrew. When Charlie Hodgson appeared on the international scene it was at inside centre with Jonny at 10. The roles may be reversed. England will surely find a place for the man who won the World Cup - won't they?

Chris Bell, Leeds

Identified as a star in waiting from the moment he took the classic route of England Under-16 through to England A. Picked for the Churchill Cup in Canada last summer at 22. "The great thing for England is there are six or seven top class centres around," he said. About to return from a stress fracture.

Ayoola Erinle, Wasps

Like Bell he was rewarded for an impressive season by joining the Churchill Cup expedition. Made a big impact for Wasps in a big impact team. If Andy Robinson likes his centres designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel rather than Hornby, Erinle's his man. Difficult to stop and a prolific try scorer.

Andy Farrell, Saracens

Another centre who is built like a back-row forward, but then apparently he is ideal for both roles, although not simultaneously. The former league superstar was fasttracked into England's élite squad only to prang a toe. Has resumed light training.