category: rugby news

The gloom deepens

Stuart Barnes 20/8/07

Ashton has few players either good enough or ready for this test and has inherited a shambles of a situation. The gloom deepens for the world champions. Patriots, call England that while you can, for those days are numbered. In a bid to create a team of functional power to bandage over the brain drain of rugby intellect England has witnessed in the last four years, Ashton has played a part in creating what for him must feel like a Frankenstein of a team.

Big and heavy and physically brave, there is an absence of variety, no width at all with a resulting predictability that makes them easy to defend. Hence France managed 160 minutes of action without conceding one try. France are a good defence but not that good. Those who thought ten-man rugby - pure and simple - as England's escape route from the mire can think again. This team is too much John Wells and not enough Brian Ashton.

As England are highly unlikely to win the tournament, the head coach should at least try and inject something of his essence in this stodgy team. He has made some serious mistakes in weighing so heavily in favour of bulk and experience against original thinking and youth. Two honourable defeats and a quarter-final loss will not be particularly creditable unless a few attacking blows are struck.

Ashton has few players either good enough or ready for this test and has inherited a shambles of a situation. He just about admitted it when he came into office but the pressure of the impending tournament understandably changed his mindset. A few first phase moves and some ambition would not go unnoticed by England fans who know this tournament is too early. Ashton has already sacrificed his men for 2011, he can yet restore a hint of the style he would adopt given a decent time in charge.

France are not looking like world beaters yet but with Yannick Jauzion returning to full form and a nation behind them, they may yet emerge as the main threat to New Zealand, especially if the more corporate Parisian crowds can adopt the magnificently supportive approach of the Marseille crowd. It was hostile but a joy to see and hear the passion. France also have a bench with an ability to lift the tempo, that makes them a powerful last quarter side. Only New Zealand match them in this department.

To avoid the All Blacks they must win their pool. Encouragement was forthcoming in the Argentine loss to Wales. The pack was not the stuff of legend and Gus Pichot was slow in the pass. The one will improve but whether the wily scrum-half can lift it is a stiffer question. It will not be easy for the hosts, the Argentine backs possess marvellous individual skills but it appears that it will take a French freeze to lose the opening day, although Argentina remain dangerous with the imminent return of Hernandez.

How Eddie O' Sullivan must have wished he had kept Brian O' Driscoll away from Bayonne last week. It was a strange fixture and a strange selection. Let all the rugby world hope Ireland's captain makes it for the heart of the tournament. After the last Lions tour he deserves a chance to prove his greatness on the big stage. Only the small minded will wish to see him missing.

Wales had a better week than Ireland with a vital win for morale against Argentina. The scrum was much better and with James Hook at ten there was ambition -although not perfection. The Welsh team will score tries if someone can ignite them and Hook is that man. He should be fly-half. The line-out was the big negative and the decision of whether Wales opt for Martyn Williams or Colin Charvis the major call. Admirer as I am of the Cardiff flanker, the three missed tackles from scrums reminds me he has a habit of being blown away by the very biggest and best. George Smith fits that category.

STUART BARNES | SKY Sports | Monday, 20 August 2007 | Comment on this article

Stuart Barnes

Still fighting 15/10/07
Fiji accept Mission Impossible 2/10/07
No time for complacency 24/9/07
Step forward for Boks 16/9/07
Minnows impress 10/9/07
World Cup wonders 5/9/07
Stuart Barnes' dream XV 2/9/07
The gloom deepens 20/8/07
Backs to the wall 13/8/07

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