Alastair Hignell

The luck of the English (38)

Paris - By rights, Brian Ashton should have been born on Friday the 13th, and spent his childhood treading on cracks pavement and playing hide and seek under ladders, before going on to strangle every black cat in the neighbourhood.

If any man could be the exception that proves the rule about sportsmen making their own luck, it is the England coach.

As a player, Ashton was denied a cap when family illness curtailed his tour of Australia with England in 1975. As assistant coach, he was denied a World Cup winner's medal when domestic problems contributed to his withdrawal from the England set-up in 2002.

As head coach, the slings and arrows keep raining down on the former schoolmaster. It seemed bad enough when preparations for each of his five previous internationals in charge of England were affected by injuries, illnesses and late withdrawals.

Now, in the build-up to easily the most important match in his tenure - Friday evening's Stade de France showdown against South Africa - he has lost not one fly-half but two, had to pick two scrum-halves on the bench and seen his captain suspended for foul play.

As Ashton contemplates a side led by a man he sacked as captain only eight months ago, with two World Cup winners so far out of form that they cannot even find a place on the bench, he must surely be starting to wonder whether the gods have got it in for him.


The South Africans certainly have. They have targeted this match ever since the draw was made. They want revenge for defeat at the same stage four years ago. They want a repeat of the extraordinary victory they engineered here in France in the quarter-final eight years ago.

And nobody is betting against them. The odds for a match between two senior IRB countries are the most lopsided I can remember with England available at 6-1 while the Springboks are odds-on.

Victory for England would - even including the opening day win for Argentina against France - be the biggest upset of this Rugby World Cup.

Of course, England can beat South Africa. But they will need to play a whole lot better than they have in any of their last half a dozen matches. They will have to get on the front foot, and stay there. Every pass, every tackle, every attack, every thought will have to be precise, clear and error–free.

They will have to find a way to outwit the South African line-out jumpers, outmuscle the Springbok back row and shackle Bryan Habana.

The players have the determination to do so. The supporters have the hope that they will.

But most of all, England need the luck to go their way.

Alastair Hignell is a former England rugby international who commentates on rugby union for Radio 5 Live. He is covering England at the World Cup. 5 Live's full broadcast schedule is here.

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 03:10 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • Richard Sutherland wrote:

Ashton is asking a lot of all the supporters. Farrell hasn't had one good game yet in Union for England and as good as Catty is, he's getting on a bit and 80 minutes is a long time in international rugby. Still, fingers and everything else crossed. An upset would set us all up for a good weekend.

  • 2.
  • At 04:32 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • Mickiavellian wrote:

Despite being Irish, I'll be placing a tenner on England to beat South Africa tomorrow.


Well, for two reasons.

1/ Because Ashton's game plan options are limited, leaving them with little choice but to play the same very tight, forward driven game that won the last World Cup for England and I think that's the only way England will beat South Africa.

2/ It will help reduce the disappointment if England win!

just kidding!

Best of luck to England and all the six nation teams this weekend.

  • 3.
  • At 05:03 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • Tom wrote:

What a romantic picture to accompany the blog!

In true current England managerial form, some gambles have to be made on selections due to injuries, bans or poor form. It's time for those that are called to the starting XV to show why they are in the squad, let alone in the starting lineup. Ashton has made a couple of brave calls - I hope that he believes in his decisions as much as some people believe he's doing the wrong thing.

I have faith that we can win - let's pray the players do too!

  • 4.
  • At 05:06 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • paul wrote:

Lets not get too carried away with unlucky old England. They have playing resources the rest of the home nations can only dream of. And with Catt at 10, they aren't that stuffed. The boks have their troubles too - with de Villiers injured, and Burger suspended, you could argue England got lucky.

  • 5.
  • At 05:32 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • Charlie Hodgson wrote:

I'll play. All you have to do is ask.

  • 6.
  • At 05:39 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • Charlie Hodgson wrote:

I'll play. All you have to do is ask.

  • 7.
  • At 05:44 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • Dan Copper wrote:

I dont know much about rugby, even though i pretend i do, but i hope England stay in the game and make a good match of it. Its a shame we have lost so many of our good player's from the World Cup side of '66

England need fear no one we got this world cup so long as the belief is there.

Sorry I'm in despair could it be 20 points 30 points or 40 points in South Africa's favour. I hope I am wrong. I cannot sleep at night for perpetually churning it over.

  • 10.
  • At 06:46 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • Mark in Washington DC wrote:

I have to agree with all of the guys so far. England havn't been unlucky they just have not performed (FACT), infact thinking back the last time we produced the goods, nee Wales when it was all forwards was the France match at twickers. In that game a the youngesters started and they did play open attacking rugby both up front and in the pack.

Ashton has the arsenal in the squad but still doesn't seem to know how to use them, which is a huge concern. Lets face it and I don't mean to put put players down but Catty as already said is getting on a bit and Farrel as good a player as he is still has yet to show he can pass a ball under this code. Coupled with Perry showing he is more into getting in with the forwards (i.e. Wales Game were he was never there when the ball came back)rather than being the lynch pin between the backs and forwards. Sorry but Catty, farrell and Perry all together, brick all facing the wrong way. side one, if you are struggling for a team how can you leave laurence of the bench.

  • 11.
  • At 06:49 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • Edd wrote:

I'd still like to see Danny Hipkiss starting on the bench in preference to a second scrum half. Farrell was a gamble when he started playing internationally, and whilst I personally am not his biggest fan, he has proven to be capable. Hipkiss was in tremendous form for Leicester last season, and surely deserevs more opportunities to play internationally, especially given the current injury problems facing england.


  • 12.
  • At 06:59 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • ruggermummy wrote:

What was Brian Ashton thinking of putting Andy Farrell in the England team in the first place and now to put him at No10 is beyond belief. Toby Flood and Charlie Hodgson are playing opposite one another this week and we are pitching Andy Farrell against the Springboks!!! Come on Brian call the airlines and book one of them on the first flight out,

  • 13.
  • At 08:13 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • raysright wrote:

Its going to be a great game of rugby. The sort of excitement this kind of fixture brings is what its all about.

Both teams have lost key players for various reasons. I do hope a pumped up England can pull this one out of the hat.

South Africa are a good team, but only that. Over-estimating/under-estimating them comes easy - relax you brits and enjoy the spectacle that may be surprised.

  • 14.
  • At 10:03 PM on 13 Sep 2007,
  • Chops wrote:

I agree with ruggermummy totally here. On Paper the packs are well matched, but looking at the backlines you have to say that 10 and 12 are the major differences between the 2 teams. It is time for Farrell to stop the talking and produce the goods that the RFU have invested a lot of time, money and patience in. If he does and the pack front up then I reckon we could win it. If not and all the "I told you so" gang will be justified in their cries for Ashtons head and messers Flood and Hodgson will be having a little chuckle! And as an Englishman living in Wales it could be a long weekend.

There is only so much you can blame on bad luck and injuries. Time to perform.

  • 15.
  • At 09:34 AM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Jim de Les Landes wrote:

Sorry Chops. I have to disagree with your comment about the packs being well matched. With RSA v England as with all highest level matches, games are won and lost by the back row. If one player made the difference for England in 2003, I'd say that rather than Wilkinson, it was Richard Hill. Without Johnny would not have raised his boot. On this basis, our challenger will be Juan Smith who is the best blind-side flanker in the world right now. So who have we got against him ? Martin Corry !!! I'm sorry to say I am not looking forward to this and I sincerely hope that Corry proves me wrong but I think he's going to get mullered. Catt and Farrell can deliver, it's Mr Smith we need to worry about.

  • 16.
  • At 10:28 AM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • eddie-george wrote:

So let's measure this bad luck...

Ashton: Lost Wilkinson and Barkley through injury. Lost Vickery through suspension.

Jake White: Lost Jean De Villiers and Pierre Spies through injury. Lost Schalk Burger through suspension.

Jake White, subject to constant meddling by Sports Ministers, being forced to play players he didn't want to pick. Under pressure to meet race quotas or have his contract as coach ripped up. Had the difficult job of bringing back players who were playing overseas. Held to the most demanding standards by the most fanatical rugby fans on the planet.

So spare me the sob-stories. Ashton has had his back luck, but the situation Englad are in is pretty much down to the fact there is a lack of depth in the English game.

You are perhaps 1 or 2, maximum 3, players shy of the best team you could put out (South Africa would have Spies, de Villiers and Burger all on the field were they available), and if luck alone can bring you victory today... it says everything about the state of England's national team. Ashton is generally blameless for the mess, but accept it for what it is.

  • 17.
  • At 10:48 AM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • David wrote:

Actually Chops, Faz has done very little talking in the media. It is the pundits who do all the talking about him, while Faz, the great man that he is, just gets on with the job.
Edd - Hipkiss has been laid low by illness, hence his no-show. I agree, he is worth a place.
And Jim - I think one of the huge problems England have had, and the worst piece of LUCK Robinson had was never being able to select Richard Hill - the best blindside in history, and with respect to Corry and others who have tried, he is irreplaceable, and might have been a better bet to take as the 'old hand' in the back row than Lawrence.

  • 18.
  • At 12:15 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • kipperchris wrote:

so where are you from, Eddie-George? Wales perhaps? The differance is the way in which the injuries came about. England have also been hit by illness. No-one here is trying to make excuses and we are not whingeing, we are just discussing our bad luck and hoping for an unlikely victory. Get the chip off your shoulder or stick to your own blogs

  • 19.
  • At 01:05 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • tony beckett wrote:

All is not gloom. Dallaglio, Worsley and Vickery, yes Vickery, did not measure up in last few matches. His suspension only means he's not on the bench.It is the best team we could put out,(possibly Moody for Corry to be quicker at breakdown) and it is our Final so all bodies will be on the line. But it is the bench that worries me. It is likely that we can hold RSA until last 10/15 mins then forwards on bench will be asked the question - Unless -we get injuries. So why is Cueto, poor form or not, not on bench as "backs back-up" All positions behind scrum would be covered without having to play Richards or Gomersall out of position if anyone gets injured.
If we are ahead after 65 mins, which is possible, we might just hold on. If we are behind at that time then I fear we will cave in in those final minutes as Catt and pack tires

  • 20.
  • At 01:10 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • eddie-george wrote:

kipperchris - South African actually.

You are way overstating your "bad luck". As I said, England are, at most, 3 players shy of their best team. That's not a dreadful injury list, that's pretty much par for the course in international rugby.

The fact that so much of your game-plan revolves around one of your injured players says everything you need to know about the current limitations of the team. That's not bad luck, that's called average preparation.

We had our comeuppance 4 years ago, and whilst some Saffers then would then bemoan bad luck, the fact was we were rubbish and thankfully enough people recognised that and made sure we put things right before the next RWC.

The shoe's on the other foot now, you can either accept it, or you can embarrass yourself by cursing the rugby gods who have almost nothing to do with your predicament.

  • 21.
  • At 01:19 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Andrew wrote:

Sorry but I don't hold with all this "bad luck" for Ashton. A lot of it is bad planning/management. I feel sorry for Jonny, but he should never have been taken to France. If he wasn't fit and ready at the start of the tournament he should have been replaced then. All he is currently doing is using up a valuable space in the squad. There will always be injuries and illness in a squad during the tournament which is why you need to start with those who are 100% fit and ready.

Even allowing for that it would still have been better to get someone over a few days ago to replace JW or OB. Yes the new guy won't have had much of a chance to work with the team but it is highly unlikely that there are going to be loads of England tries - the best we could hope for as regards points is slotting over the penalties which will hopefully come our way which is why we needed to get Flood, Geraghty, Goode or any other kicking specialist out to France.

  • 22.
  • At 02:02 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Robin wrote:

Bad Luck - RUBBISH.
Bad Squad! I think most of us can name them - Hodgson, Flood, Geharty, Cipriani. Most of BA's problems are of his own making.

  • 23.
  • At 02:21 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • N Down wrote:

Luck of NZ more like, this whole world cup is a set up for them. May as well just go and give the trophy to NZ now. If England get to the semis they will have had to play SA, AUS, and Samoa. NZ by comparison? Italy, Scotland, Argentina! Which would you choose? NZ have got a bye to the final yet again. These groups and the whole set up of the WC has to be looked at.

  • 24.
  • At 02:25 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Fly Half wrote:

come on ENGLAND we are the champions! now let's show them why....

  • 25.
  • At 02:42 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • James Wignell wrote:

I have laid out 50 quid on England at six-to-one. It guarantees me a good night out. If England win, I am happy as larry; if we lose, which I expect we will (by thirty points), I still collect my 300 squids. It's a no-lose situation really. Who wouldn't be happy to part with fifty pounds to see the Boks lose ? A small price to pay for all the pain the England team has put us through since 2003...

  • 26.
  • At 02:44 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Steve Craddock wrote:


Wilkinson - definitely would have been playing.
Hodgson - definitely (in Wilkinson's abscence).
Barkley - definitely (in Hodgson's abscence).
Strettle - definitely.
Ellis - definitely.
Ward-Smith - definitely.
Thompson - definitely.
Vickery - definitely.
Morgan - probably would have been playing.
Tindall - probably.
Woodman - probably.
Hill - probably.
Hipkiss - possibly.
Tait - possibly.
Hartley - possibly.
Grewcock - possibly.

That's a minimum eight first-teamers (and those who would have replaced them). Maximum of about sixteen losses to the team.

The lack of experience of Farrell is due to injury. Could also put the lack of sharpness of Dallaglio and Robinson down to injury, as well as Rees and Moody, and Sheridan and Stevens. Catt can't practice kicking due to injury.

It is possible to have bad luck, in the same way that England were largely blessed with good luck last time round.

  • 27.
  • At 03:14 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Gareth wrote:

Hasn't Woodman been retired for about 4 years? Hasnt Thompson retired?Why not go ahead and include Johnson in your list!

England have been unlucky this week with the 2 OH being out, but this question of luck wouldnt have been raised if it wasnt for that.

You will be up against it but have the game to stay close to them

  • 28.
  • At 03:17 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Will C wrote:

Am i the only one thinks Englands current mess is down to Sir Clive. Wasnt it he who barely picked new squad members over a ten year period except for Johnny. He then proceeded to bring Jason Leonard on tour for the world cup to play 10-15 mins of rugby a game(he was, a great player in his time)but this speaks wonders. Why was he brought?? T beat the caps record?? Englands back play, then, was stifled by a negative forward dominated game, sure they barely saw the ball when they played anyone good. And why when then they had greenwood and catty outside them?? England then hired Sir Clive junior who was left with a team half the strength of the old team due to players retiring. Being an Irish man i say fare deuce to Ashton for bringing a team in disarray to the point that they are at, but it is going to be at least another 5 to 6 years before they are can perform at the level that they have done in the past. A world cup was and is a great thing but the costs were huge.

  • 29.
  • At 03:33 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • John Bonner wrote:

England ain't got a chance - they've left it too little too late. Yes they've been unlucky with injuries but they've had 4 years to prepare from the last World Cup.

  • 30.
  • At 03:52 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • rich hin wrote:

South Africa are bringing this one home.

1. Line-outs - with the amount of kicking to be done in this game and the fact SA have the best line-out in World rugby - adv SA
2. Kicking - England do not have a recognizable goal kicker in their side - adv SA
3. Leadership - England lack an inspirational leader - adv SA
4. Experience - this is SA's most capped side of all time - adv SA
5. Location - not playing at Twickenham - adv SA

  • 31.
  • At 04:26 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Lee wrote:

It's farrells last chance. Play well and steal the hearts of the 85% of england supporters that have blamed him for most of our crappy performances. Play badly and swing the other 15% (including me)toward the "Andy Farrell was a waste of time and money" camp.
England can do it, SA's loss of Burger is a result, as is England's loss of Vickery, Steven's scrummages as well as him and is far better in attack and defence around the park.
Fingers crossed.

Paul's comment about us having huge resources is the daftest thing ever written in a blog. You can have 1 million fly halves but if you've only got two in your squad and they are both injured , it doesn't matter you can't replace them unless you send them home completely.

  • 32.
  • At 04:39 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • John L. wrote:

Am I mistaken or do we not go on if we are in second place? Could BA be holding back strategically to ensure our 2 best backs remain whole?

  • 33.
  • At 04:46 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • John L. wrote:

Am I mistaken or do we not go on if we are in second place? Could BA be holding back strategically to ensure our 2 best backs remain whole?

  • 34.
  • At 05:09 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • waikatopom wrote:

Sackey - Your time has come. You will never have a better oportunity.

  • 35.
  • At 05:14 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Michael Owen wrote:

Is it too late or can we pick Emile Heskey to play fly half?

  • 36.
  • At 07:03 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Steve Craddock wrote:

"Hasn't Woodman been retired for about 4 years? Hasnt Thompson retired?Why not go ahead and include Johnson in your list!"

Well, it doesn't take a genious to work out that Woodman was playing four years ago. I take the point that he's long retired (due to injury), but he was expected to be the loosehead this time round. Same with Thompson who retired more recently.

The reason that I didn't include Johnson was (rather obviously) because he didn't retire due to injury, unlike the above.

I also forgot to add Cueto, who is injured.

Will C, Woodward brought in as many new players as he could be reasonably expected to do, whilst preparing a largely settled side for the World Cup. Woodman, for example was a particularly late addition.

Contrary to popular myth, England played quite expansive rugby in the build-up to 2003. They began to tighten up as nerves set in.

Woodward was right to concentrate entirely on 2003. Four years is enough time to re-build a squad.

  • 37.
  • At 08:01 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • SoutpielAucklander wrote:

I'm English, but I totally agree with eddie-george. Imagine if the Government made it a condition of Ashton's contract that he select an equal number of players from each of the regions of England without regard to merit, or that he select at least seven players from state schools (not many of which play rugby). That is what Jake White has had to face.

  • 38.
  • At 11:53 PM on 14 Sep 2007,
  • Paddy wrote:

Outplayed in every department bar fullback. But also well and truly beaten up without sight of a single bloodied Boks shirt.

We need to change to an all red strip cos the white shows us up for what we are - bleeding lightweights.

Inspite of this, someone needs to point out to the French ref that he is supposed to referee both sides.

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