England’s rugby ills need selection cure
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Nine weeks and counting. Amid English rugby’s uncertainties, one deadline looms: 3pm on Saturday February 3, when Scotland come to Twickenham on the opening weekend of the 2007 RBS 6 Nations championship.
Other matters may be of greater long-term moment.
Whether England take a punt on personality and leadership with Martin Johnson as the next head coach, import the unquestioned gifts of Nick Mallett, revive the Dean Richards-John Wells partnership once so fruitful for Leicester, or try something else is undoubtedly significant. Still more so are the structural club versus country issues.
Results and performances are, though, the point of it all. A Six Nations title looks unlikely, a successful World Cup defence the stuff of fantasy. Yet it is not too much to hope for renewed cohesion and second or third in the Six Nations, provided the right players are chosen.
England can be grateful that their trip to Dublin does not come until the championship’s third weekend.
But Scotland under coach Frank Hadden should be more challenging than their predecessors, who have conceded 126 points in the last three visits to Twickenham.
If England’s malaise expressed itself in the crippling loss of confidence that turns good players into incompetents, its underlying cause was constipation.
Inability to create quick ball and move it rapidly was exposed in the later stages of the victory over South Africa when they won 18 consecutive rucks, and still contrived to lose ground.
An unbalanced back row and shaky midfield need surgery, followed by time to develop. The crying need for a genuine open-side flanker has an obvious solution in Wasps’ Tom Rees, with Lewis Moody moving across to contest his proper position at six with Joe Worsley.
There is no reason why captain Martin Corry should lose his place at number eight simply through association with a failed regime – this is rugby, not party politics – but Dan Ward-Smith of Bristol offers an appealing alternative.
Ward-Smith’s selection would strengthen the case for clubmate Shaun Perry at scrum-half, already strong because of the superiority of his service – essential if any fluency is to be attained – over that of Peter Richards, who offers an admirably contrasting bench alternative.
Outside them Charlie Hodgson has gone for the season and experience suggests it may be wise not to count on Jonny Wilkinson.
The rising generation of Toby Flood, Daniel Cipriani and Ryan Lamb is not quite there yet – with Gloucester’s formidable coach Dean Ryan vocally concerned to protect Lamb’s talents against damage by premature exposure.
Andy Goode won’t terrify anyone at outside-half, but for a team that needs to win now, he is probably the best option.
At centre either Mathew Tait or Anthony Allen needs a proper run at 12 and Jamie Noon has done enough, particularly against the All Blacks, to seal a place at 13 – although Phil Christophers’ recall to the squad suggests a welcome renewed taste for midfielders who can sidestep and break. Perm Josh Lewsey – the one Englishman who would make a Lions Test XV – with two from Olly Morgan, Paul Sackey, Mark Cueto and Iain Balshaw for the back three.
In the front five England must pray for some healthy props, in particular a trouble-free spell for Phil Vickery, and – assuming his throwing radar is functioning – seriously consider restoring Steve Thompson’s mobility and handling skills at hooker.
There was a genuine, if little noticed, plus from the autumn programme in the form of lock Tom Palmer, who should have consigned Danny Grewcock – explosive in the wrong sense – to an overdue bit-part role.
If Steve Borthwick returns from injury to partner Palmer at lock, he would be a captaincy candidate.
The job, though, should go to Vickery – who would have had it long ago but for his injuries.