Ashton ponders biggest posers of his coaching life
Chris Hewett reports from Paris on the challenge facing England's head coach as he searches for the right selection to catch the Wallabies on the hop
Decisions, decisions. Right now, Brian Ashton would happily swap roles with Gordon Brown, on the basis that one career-defining choice is easier on the soul than half a dozen.
Over the next 24 hours, the England coach must make the correct calls at left wing and in both centre positions, at tight-head prop, front jumper and open-side flanker. If he gets them wrong, the reigning champions will surrender the crown jewels in Marseilles this weekend. Even if he gets them right, they will be no better than second favourites to a Wallaby side driven by the sweet thought of revenge. Welcome to the real World Cup.
England were no less convincing than Australia at the weekend, but the holders were at full strength and full tilt in their game against Tonga at the Parc des Princes on Friday night while John Connolly fielded what amounted to a second team against the Canadians in Bordeaux on Saturday afternoon. The Wallabies' back-up players are nowhere near as good as New Zealand's – one of the All Black tries against Romania two days ago, created by Sione Lauaki and Andrew Ellis among others, was the nearest thing to a work of art yet witnessed in this tournament – but the supporting cast are now irrelevant. From here on in, the top-of-the-bill acts take over.
And who are England's top-of-the-bill acts? Good question. Precious few individuals pick themselves in the way 13 or more of the World Cup-winning side did in 2003. Andy Gomarsall is nailed on at scrum-half – while he did not rule the roost against the Tongas as he did against Samoa, he played an important role in minimising the significant threat posed by Finau Maka from the base of the scrum – and he will certainly be partnered by Jonny Whatsisname this weekend, even though Olly Barkley is the more imaginative of the two stand-offs, as well as being the superior all-round footballer. Josh Lewsey, Paul Sackey, Andrew Sheridan and Martin Corry can also consider themselves definite starters. Of the remaining nine positions, at least six will be the subject of the closest examination and most exhaustive debate.
John Wells, the forwards coach, raised his head above the parapet to answer questions yesterday, and promptly lowered it again the moment the talk turned towards selection. By the end of the discussion, he was giving less away than George Smiley. Yet one or two of his comments were revealing. He talked in valedictory tones of the young Wasps flanker Tom Rees – "Tom has been carrying injuries, which haven't helped his cause," he said – and then appeared to indicate that the second-row combination fielded against Tonga would be broken up. "We chose to play Ben Kay and Steve Borthwick together for very specific reasons," he said, as if to suggest that, when it came to the Wallabies, the reasoning would change.
Even if Rees recovers from his hamstring problem and is declared available for selection, Lewis Moody's energetic contribution against Tonga, a performance that bordered on the self-sacrificial, surely pushed him ahead of his rivals for the No 7 shirt. The best chaser in the squad, he has it in him to give Chris Latham a far rougher ride at Stade Vélodrome than the magnificent Australian full-back has experienced thus far. In addition, Moody is the most naturally aggressive of England's hunter-gatherers off the base of the scrum and the back of the line-out. This might not worry an outside-half as experienced as Stephen Larkham, but Larkham is unfit. Berrick Barnes, 21 years of age and three caps into his Test career, will be easier meat.
The tight-five is a more complex topic. If the three hookers are much of a muchness in terms of potential impact, Mark Regan scrummages more strongly and infuriates opponents more readily than George Chuter or Lee Mears. Matt Stevens delivered his best Test performance against the Tongans and deserves to hold his place at tight-head prop, and if this puts Phil Vickery, the dispossessed captain, in a foul mood it will be no bad thing, for an angry Vickery might be worth his substantial weight in gold if the game is in the balance after an hour. At lock, Simon Shaw's mauling and ball-carrying will be of enormous value. Only one of the pure jumpers, Kay and Borthwick, can join him in the boilerhouse. Borthwick is better at unpicking opposition line-outs, Kay the more forceful presence around the field. It is an either-or.
And outside the scrum? Jason Robinson will certainly return, either at left wing or full-back, if his hamstring untweaks itself in good time for the game, but the midfield conundrum is nowhere near as easily solved. With Barkley at inside centre and Mathew Tait outside him there is a defensive fragility waiting to be exposed by a partnership as potent as Matt Giteau and Stirling Mortlock. Dan Hipkiss, as strong in the tackle as he is powerful in the heavy traffic, will come under serious consideration for a first World Cup start at No 13, as will Andy Farrell at No 12, although a decision in favour of the latter would slow England's game to a standstill. Whatever the Wallaby backline may or may not be, it is anything but ponderous.
These are deep waters, in which a coach might easily drown. Four years ago, in the final in Sydney, Clive Woodward picked Trevor Woodman ahead of Jason Leonard in his front row and recalled Mike Tindall for Mike Catt in midfield. Woodman scrummaged the living daylights out of the Australians; Tindall produced the best kicking performance of his career. Cometh the moment, and all that. On the shores of the Mediterranean five days from now, England will need something of the same from those who win the tight selections. The difference? There will not be two of them this time, but half a team's worth.
Hewett's XV for Australia
15 J Lewsey (Wasps)
14 P Sackey (Wasps)
13 D Hipkiss (Leicester)
12 O Barkley (Bath)
11 J Robinson (Unattached) or M Cueto (Sale)
10 J Wilkinson (Newcastle)
9 A Gomarsall (Harlequins)
1 A Sheridan (Sale)
2 M Regan (Bristol)
3 M Stevens (Bath)
4 S Shaw (Wasps)
5 S Borthwick ((Bath))
6 M Corry (Leicester), capt
7 L Moody (Leicester)
8 N Easter (Harlequins)
Replacements: G Chuter (Leicester), P Vickery (Wasps), J Worsley (Wasps), L Dallaglio (Wasps), S Perry (Bristol), A Farrell (Saracens), M Tait (Newcastle).