Rugby Union: Time for a balancing act

Mark Evans, Saracens' director of rugby, says England's ills start in selection
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The Independent Online
So where do we go from here? After three internationals, England need to accept that their present strategy requires a thorough overhaul.

To begin with, we need to clarify exactly how we are trying to play. Given the law changes and our long-term aim of beating the southern-hemisphere nations on a regular basis then we should be looking to play a fluid game with the ball in hand.

We must stand up in the tackle and off-load the ball in contact, we need to vary the point of the attack more often and our line-out tactics should be made more flexible. It is also worth remembering that at international level the half-backs must be able to kick accurately - however open a game the side is trying to play.

There are so many good players in England that selection decisions are always controversial - the key is to pick a team tailored to the chosen style of play, rather than simply deciding who are the 15 most talented performers.

Whatever the game-plan we need a ball-winning front five. No problem there as we've already got one - although there is a strong argument for replacing Mark Regan with Phil Greening, simply on the grounds that he is a more dynamic all-round player. Whoever is the hooker, they should be instructed to throw more balls to the tail of the line-out in order to get more forwards running into the opposition midfield, but on the whole this is an area of the team that needs very little alteration.

Which is more than can be said about the back row. We have to play a genuine open-side, who can play on the ground as well as being able to act as the link between the backs and forwards. If this is accepted then the choice lies between Richard Hill and Neil Back. At No 8 we need to have a ball player who can also win ball at the back of the line out. Someone who can pass, put others in space and who does not immediately go to ground when in possession - Chris Sheasby or Anthony Diprose. The big- hitting, ball-carrying blind-side role should be given to one of Lawrence Dallaglio, Ben Clarke, Steve Ojomoh or Tim Rodber. They are all excellent players, but as soon as more than one is picked the side is in danger of becoming unbalanced - they are all good at the same things.

So far this season, too many English forwards have hit the deck as soon as they have made contact with the opposition - they retain the ball but don't shift the point of the attack and so have had trouble in generating quick ball and greater continuity.

At half-back, we need to pick a No 9 whose first instinct is to pass, but who is also technically capable of kicking and running well when required - to this end we should go for Kyran Bracken or Matt Dawson (if fit) and put the pivotal fly-half spot in the hands of the talented yet inexperienced Alex King from Wasps. He is the only stand-off available to England who can run, pass and kick well enough. Of course, he is not a world beater yet, but he is the best we have got and he fits the style so we should pick him.

The centre partnership has become inextricably intertwined with the captaincy issue. Assuming that a change of leader after three games is not under serious consideration, then Phil de Glanville automatically plays inside centre and gets to perform the distributive second five-eighth role. If this is the case, then Jeremy Guscott must play at outside centre regardless of how well Will Carling is playing. Once again it is a question of balance - de Glanville and Carling are too similar to play in the same back line if you want to keep a range of attacking options open.

At the back, Tim Stimpson should be recalled as soon as he is fit - which gives the team two strike runners in the midfield channels. On the wings the choice is not wide - Adedayo Adebayo and John Sleightholme should suffice in the short run and if the rest of the team functions more effectively they would get more opportunities to show what they can do.

It would be naive to suggest that a team selected on such lines would immediately fire on all cylinders. But at least it would be a coherent whole, with players clear about why they had been selected and what they were expected to do. It would, perhaps, be a start.

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