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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 January 2008, 15:37 GMT
Ashton renews Balshaw bond
By Simon Austin

Brian Ashton and Iain Balshaw
Ashton believes Balshaw is crucial to his rugby philosophy

Iain Balshaw's recall to the England team by Brian Ashton rekindles a special relationship that stretches back more than 12 years.

Ashton first spotted Balshaw when he was a wiry 16-year-old playing for Stonyhurst College against Lancaster Royal Grammar.

The then-Bath coach was there to watch his son turn out for LCG, but his eyes were immediately drawn to Stonyhurst's mercurial fly-half.

"Iain was brilliant - I couldn't get him down to Bath quickly enough," Ashton, who had been a teacher at Stonyhurst before Balshaw arrived, recalled.

"There's no point under-estimating Iain's natural ability - it's there for everybody to see. He's got the speed of Christian Cullen and the dancing feet of Jason Robinson."

Balshaw, the son of Stonyhurst's caretaker, was quickly signed up by Bath and began a meteoric rise in the game.

Brian Ashton at Stonyhurst
Ashton (right) taught at Stonyhurst for seven years
His first-team debut came at the age of 18 and he soon displaced England international Matt Perry at full-back for both club and country.

It is little coincidence that Balshaw's finest spell in an England shirt - when he scored five tries in the first four games of the 2001 Six Nations - came during Ashton's first spell as attack coach under Sir Clive Woodward.

Unfortunately, Balshaw has rarely been seen at his pacy, elusive best in an England shirt since.

The 2001 Lions tour to Australia, when coach Graham Henry deployed him more as a battering ram, shredded his confidence and he was supplanted by then-Bath team-mate Perry.

A series of injuries then deprived Balshaw of the opportunity to string a series of matches together.

Yet, although his erratic form and susceptibility to injury frustrated other coaches, Ashton's faith remained undimmed.

When he returned as England's attack coach in 2006, Balshaw immediately returned at full-back for the autumn internationals following a period in the wilderness.

Iain's ability to read space, often at the last possible moment, is second to none

Brian Ashton
His highlight was a spectacular long-range try in the defeat by Argentina, before a torn calf muscle forced him out of the next match against South Africa.

He missed the birth of his second child to go on the 2007 summer tour of South Africa and played in the first Test, but injury - yet again - forced him home.

Then came the first major rupture in the duo's relationship, when Ashton left Balshaw out of his World Cup squad.

The coach admitted that, as with James Simpson-Daniel, Balshaw's inability to remain injury-free for any length of time had effectively cost him his place.

"I respected his decision, but I was bitterly disappointed," the 28-year-old admitted.

Now he's back. Clearly Ashton still believes that Balshaw is crucial to his philosophy of players attacking space, cutting good lines and thinking on their feet.

"Iain is very good at taking a panoramic view of the game in front of him," Ashton has said.

"His ability to read space, often at the last possible moment, is second to none."

Crucially, Balshaw has remained largely injury-free this season, bringing with it a greater consistency.

"He's been outstanding this year," Gloucester coach Dean Ryan said recently. "Last year was probably representative of previous years - in and out, injured, struggling to find consistency, struggling to find what people want from him.

"Now he knows what we want from him and knows what he needs to do every week."

Balshaw looking for 2001 vintage
10 Nov 06 |  Rugby Union


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