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Ashton picks England Calcutta Cup midfield with Lawrence and Tuilagi back

By PA
Manu Tuilagi/ PA

Chris Ashton believes Ollie Lawrence has the physical presence to become the long-term successor to Manu Tuilagi as England’s midfield powerhouse.

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For the first time in this Guinness Six Nations, both Lawrence and Tuilagi are available after recovering from respective hip and groin injuries and Steve Borthwick is deciding what role they should play in Saturday’s clash with Scotland.

Owing to their lack of match fitness, former England wing Ashton insists the existing midfield of Fraser Dingwall and Henry Slade needs to be retained with Lawrence included on the bench.

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And while the rampaging, if injury-prone, Tuilagi still has a role to play at 32 years old, Ashton feels Lawrence is ready to show he can also punch holes in defences at Test level.

“Ollie seems like very, very similar to Manu and it’s taken his move to Bath to realise his full potential in how good he can be,” BBC Rugby Union Daily podcast co-host Ashton told the PA news agency.

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“Against Toulouse a few weeks ago he was outstanding. We have yet to see that at England level, but I see Ollie as the perfect replacement for Manu, a really natural fit.

“When Manu’s available you still have to use him because he’s so different, but he’s more of a risk because he hasn’t had any game time.

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“He can come off the bench and do 15 or 20 minutes, but that’s a problem in itself because if someone goes down early and Manu’s got to go on, then he’s at real high risk because he’s got to do 60 or 70 minutes.

“Ollie’s less risky just because of his age, the number of injuries he’s had is quite low and he’s played a lot of ruby for Bath this season, so he can get going quickly. I would be leaning towards Ollie on the bench for those factors.”

Dingwall is the most likely to lose out because of the availability of Lawrence and Tuilagi, having produced solid but unspectacular performances against Italy and Wales, and Borthwick could decide a more muscular carrier is needed at inside centre.

But Ashton, who won 44 caps in a distinguished England career lasting from 2010 to 2019, believes he should be retained for the Calcutta Cup showdown at Murrayfield.

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“Fraser is a very unselfish player and is the kind of player I would love to play with,” Ashton said.

“You know he’s always going to provide and work hard to get to places that not necessarily everyone would cover. He’s a link player and he knows how to combine and provide for everybody else.

“You know that he will provide the right pass or cover your inside shoulder all the time. Every team needs players like him.”

One change forced upon Borthwick will be at scrum-half after Alex Mitchell was ruled out by a knee injury, creating a vacancy for either Danny Care or Ben Spencer to fill.

“It’s a shocker to lose Mitchell because he’s so good. He’s a big loss and it’s not great timing going into these games,” Ashton said.

“Before we all thought he was an attacking nine, but he showed at the World Cup he can do it all and he’s carried on doing that in the Six Nations.

“He’s just such a threat, especially because of the danger he poses near the try-line when he pulls people out of place. You can’t coach the skills Alex has.”

* Chris Ashton is a co-host of the BBC’s ‘Rugby Union Daily’ podcast with new episodes available every morning during Six Nations match weeks.

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Poorfour 11 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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