Ashton lays the foundations

Brian Ashton admits he is "a fair distance away" from formulating the World Cup squad that will attempt to create rugby history in seven months. [more]

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Brian Ashton admits he is "a fair distance away" from formulating the World Cup squad that will attempt to create rugby history in seven months.

But Ashton has underlined there can be no turning back on an invigorating youth policy which shone through England’s RBS 6 Nations campaign.

England once again came up short in the European game’s showpiece tournament, finishing third behind World Cup hosts France and Triple Crown winners Ireland.

Prospects of successfully defending the world title – a feat never previously accomplished – remain distant, yet head coach Ashton’s Six Nations debrief will contain its share of encouraging bullet points.

David Strettle, Toby Flood, Shane Geraghty and Tom Rees all emerged as players of immense promise, while Harry Ellis took a vice-like grip on the scrum-half position, an area that has troubled England since Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken retired, post-2003 World Cup.

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Ashton must now assess all available options prior to Tests against World Cup pool opponents South Africa in Bloemfontein and Pretoria during late May and early June, which could include recalls for fit-again forwards such as Andrew Sheridan, Matt Stevens and possibly Richard Hill.

"I am a fair distance away from the World Cup 30," said Ashton, following England’s 27-18 Millennium Stadium defeat against Wales.

"I’ve got some names in mind, and I am going to sit down this next week and have a really good look at the personnel available, then start working towards getting a squad together for South Africa.

"I don’t think we took any steps backwards (against Wales). We played maybe not quite as well as against France the previous weekend, but Wales were a hell of a lot better than France were.

"We have maybe climbed the ladder a little bit in the second division in the last couple of weeks. I wouldn’t say we are in the first division at the moment, but not many sides are."

England’s 43-13 Six Nations record defeat against Ireland midway through the tournament meant their campaign, Ashton believes, had two distinct sections.

He added: "You can split the Six Nations into two phases from our point of view.

"Had we stayed with the way we played in the first three games (against Scotland, Italy and Ireland), we would have made no progress whatsoever.

"We’ve tried to change that, so I think we have made some significant progress. We have to work really hard now to get the balance right in terms of how we play the game.

"We’ve only had two games with the mindset change, so we are going to have to take it on board pretty smartly."

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