Frank Malley: Tough call Ashton, but you must drop Vickery
Brian Ashton must take one of the toughest decisions of his rugby career this week.
He must drop his World Cup captain. Or, more accurately, he should not restore Phil Vickery to the starting line-up for the do-or-die eliminator against Tonga following the prop's two-match suspension.
On such decisions do a coach's reputation hang.
But there are sound reasons why discarding Vickery would enhance, rather than harm, England's chances of reaching the quarter-finals, thus avoiding the ignominy of becoming the first world champions to exit the competition at the group phase.
For one, Vickery's replacement Matt Stevens proved in Saturday's victory against Samoa that he is the feistiest of scrummagers and, let's face it, it is a long time since Vickery, whose career since winning a World Cup medal in 2003 has been beset by injury, lived up to his 'Raging Bull' nickname.
For another, it would be harsh to strip Martin Corry of the captaincy after a match in which he scored two tries and led by inspiring example.
Most of all, though, for the first time since England steamrollered a Welsh shadow team in that ill-conceived warm-up fixture, Ashton has something going his way.
If his team are not exactly on a roll there is a feeling that at last there is a smidgen of momentum with which to work.
Perhaps Jonny Wilkinson put it best after the victory against Samoa when he observed that the aftermath of the first two games of the World Cup had been about ripping things apart which had not worked while this week was about building on something which had.
It is a measure of how far England have fallen when they are taking succour from beating a tiny nation such as Samoa but as the squad returned to their luxurious Trianon Palace base here, a drop kick away from the world's most famous chateau, the buzz words were " Balance" and "Confidence".
So much so that you could not help notice the parallels between the England rugby team at this World Cup under Ashton and the football team battling to qualify for Euro 2008 under Steve McClaren.
Next month McClaren faces England's defining match against Russia on a plastic pitch in Moscow having stumbled across a more pleasing balance in his side, largely forced upon him by injuries and circumstance.
The same, tentatively, might be said of Ashton.
So far England have hovered between turgid and woeful at a World Cup which has been predictably short of gripping contests after the opening thriller when Argentina beat hosts France.
Come to think, that's not quite true. England have been even worse than that.
Against the United States they were incompetent in failing to earn a bonus point. Against South Africa they were humiliated, failing to score for the first time in nine years in a Test match in a 36-0 defeat.
But against Samoa on Saturday in Nantes there were signs that Ashton's amoebic strugglers were at last developing a backbone, at last finding some elusive rhythm and tempo.
Put that down to the extra zip provided at the base of the scrum by Andy Gomarsall, plus Ashton's decision to restore Mark Cueto to the wing gave England fire power on both flanks with Paul Sackey picking up two tries. It helps, too, when the trusty left boot of Wilkinson is swinging once more with machine-like metronomy and when at last the Euro has tumbled that Olly Barkley makes a perfect partner at inside centre.
There are still issues at outside centre where the superbly talented Mathew Tait continues to perplex by looking anything but comfortable. But Ashton just might have another thing going for him. This England side have had anything but the easy ride of New Zealand and Australia.
They have had to dig deep into the core of their character. They have been tested physically and mentally and forced to surf a relentless wave of pressure, playing knockout rugby mid-way through their pool matches.
That can breed unity and strength and is why, after Samoa, the other buzz word is "Belief." England will need that in spades against Tonga and a likely quarter-final against Australia.
It is why Ashton must not shirk the toughest decision of all.