An Englishman’s View
I attended a dinner recently where England Rugby Head Coach Stuart Lancaster and his assistant Graham Rowntree were guest speakers. Inevitably attention was all on the Six Nations and the World Cup, as well as the ultimately disappointing Autumn series. This last fact, in my view stemmed from the lack of progress in shaping our attacking play rather than the win loss ratio. By the way, far too much was made of the win over Australia who should have won by 20 points at least were it not for some excellent English defence. We cannot rely on their scrum to crumble again come October time.
Back to the dinner – Graham Rowntree as always was hugely impressive. He has undeniably built two world class front fives, if not three. We are well blessed in that department for sure. My real interest was in unravelling the man behind the inscrutable mask that is Stuart Lancaster, and to understand whether he has what it takes to make England a World Cup contender. How do you summarise so far – he collected and reformed a dysfunctional squad where the only way was up, then enjoyed some fortunate results but imbuing a strong sense of ‘England’ into his players thinking which is universally and rightly applauded. Shocking to think they had apparently lost that under Martin Johnson and for example it has taken Nick Easter 4 years to effect a rehabilitation of sorts. I think its right to say that Stuart has been plagued by injuries as well as certain players peaking just at the wrong time for him. But that’s life and England has so many top players it hasn’t really mattered and to be fair Stuart doesn’t use this as an excuse. However it seems to have thrown him off course when deciding his favoured match squad.
I posed a question to him that evening -
‘We seem to have an embarrassment of riches in almost every back position judging by the number of players you have selected over the last 2 years. But they all seem to be of the same quality. So why don’t you pick the Bath back line en bloc, which gives you pace, power, talent, teamwork and saves a load of selection meetings!’
I was being mischievous as an ex Bath player of course and it was reminiscent of the mid 80’s debates surrounding the International selection of players from Bath, then England’s champion club. Stuart smiled and said “not such a bad shout” but wouldn’t engage further, and this was before the Bath backs ripped Toulouse to pieces in their own back yard.
He knew what I meant, we have chopped and changed for months across the England back division and now we have a unit screaming to be selected. Interestingly, Andy Farrell was keen to remind us that they didn’t do so well against Leicester in the mud, that Barritt was impressive versus Australia, as was Luther Burrell against Leicester recently – by the way I fully endorse a place for him in the England team. However, I am not going to bore others (and myself) with the blinding obvious – that Barritt will never be an International class 13. It does speak volumes for the dilemma facing Lancaster and Farrell (and dare I mention Mike Catt?) … do they trust themselves to harness the prodigious talent on show, or acknowledge known forward strengths and assume that is enough with a little bit of ‘extra’.
Contenders in our problem positions are now playing out of their skin in the Premiership and European competition, all putting their hands up for selection. You couldn’t have said that a year ago. We are now about to see whether this coaching team will earn its selection spurs or whether its a bridge too far. Most would agree that they must make their selections now (fitness permitting) and stick with them as well as marking out a style of play, as yet indiscernible.
However, I am now going to make TWO predictions, one of which turns what I have just written on its head!
What if Lancaster has decided that its too late to define a style of play, too late to determine his first choices and too late to know who is going to be available (eg Tuilagi still injured). The solution is to pick on form all the way up to the Final and break the mould that says you need to know your first team?
If we win the World Cup on that basis then he will have redefined the coaching and selection manual forever. So, I am making a small bet he has decided this in his mind because when you think about it, there’s much logic in that approach given our situation – but what do I know as I have never met the man. We shall see!
My other prediction is the England will smash Wales and Ireland up front in Cardiff and Lansdown which may be enough to win both games. We know we are equipped to do so – two famous wins away in World Cup Year would be a thing. Perhaps its the English Bulldog that will have the loudest bark in the Northern Hemisphere when it matters.
Finally, I am going to admit to a growing sense of anger about an issue which concerns all and yet is being ignored in reality. ‘Player Welfare’ is a hackneyed phrase thrown around like confetti by the leaders of the game off the field. The shocking number of injuries, lack of proper rest time and poor attention to post career prospects is benign neglect at best, but more likely wilful indifference. More to come on that topic as well as an outside tip for the Rugby World Cup which may surprise some of you!