Mission Impossible for Ashton's Men; Spring in His Step: Bryan Habana's Four Tries against Samoa Will Serve as a Warning to England the Only Way Is Up: Andy Farrell and Mike Catt Discuss Their Options before Tonight's Crunch Game

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Byline: CHRIS JONES

BRIAN ASHTON already has his get out of jail card. "Not my fault", hewill plead, "I did not have long enough to prepare my boys for the task athand." The England coach probably already has his excuse memorised for when theworld champions lose their already loose grip on the Webb Ellis Trophy if, asthe bookies predict, they are defeated by South Africa tonight.

Could this week's preparations for their mammoth game with the Springboks havebeen any worse for Ashton? Picking up the pieces of Andy Robinson's disastrousreign was bad enough to start with.

Ashton then fumbled through the Six Nations as he tried to find some kind ofwinning formula.

Yet now the 61-year-old Lancastrian must rely on Mike Catt, who will be 36 nextweek, and Andy Farrell, 32, to rescue England's campaign after a catalogue ofmishaps left them in this precarious position. Lose to the Boks and it isAustralia in the quarter-finals unless Wales shock the Wallabies in Cardifftomorrow.

How did England end up in this state? Well, first Jonny Wilkinson, the manwhose drop goal won the Cup four years ago, fell over a teammate and damaged anankle ligament and then Olly Barkley, England's best player in the awful 28-10win over America, injured a hip muscle in a freak training incident.

Captain Phil Vickery will also be missing after being hit with a two-game banfor tripping.

Patently, England have their backs to the wall and must come out fighting -literally. However, by opting for the ballplaying Nick Easter rather thanLawrence Dallaglio at No8, they have ignored a renowned rugby warrior, a manwho lives for this kind of one-off challenge. I believe that Ashton has made amajor mistake.

True, Dallaglio was poor against USA but this is the man who led London Waspsto Heineken Cup glory against mighty Leicester. Dallaglio or Easter for MissionImpossible? I would take the Wasps legend every time.

Captain Martin Corry insists his men will play on the legal edge of brutalityin the forwards and his commitment to creating "a bit of mayhem" in thebreakdown will hearten English fans.

But it must be galling for men like Martin Johnson, Neil Back and Richard Hillto see what they did so much to achieve in 2003 undermined by four years oftreading water.

THEline-ups Robinson 15 Lewsey 14 Noon 13 Farrell 12 Sackey 11 Catt 10 Perry 9Sheridan 1 Regan 2 Stevens 3 Shaw 4 Kay 5 Corry (capt) 6 Rees 7 Easter 8England Replacements: Chuter, Freshwater, Borthwick, Moody, Gomarsall,Richards, Tait..

The damage was inf licted by Sir Clive Woodward's departure in 2004 andRobinson's disastrous tenure, which left Ashton with little time to produce atrophy-challenging team.

Ashton, a man known for liking good movement of the ball through the hands, hasbeen forced to embrace pragmatic rugby, opting to give forwards coach JohnWells extra time on the training pitch to put a viable pack together with aninevitable effect on the back play.

Too little time has been spent marrying the backs and forwards together as acohesive force and that is why England will kick for position tonight in theStade de France and concentrate on short side attacks up the blindside.

The problem there is that scrum-half Shaun Perry lacks the sharpness to carryout the plan and tends to look to break himself instead of clearing the ball atpace to support runners. …