Alan Watkins: Robinson reveals cosmic stupidity in cavalier removal of Paul and choice of substitutes

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The Independent Online

England finished their match against Australia on Saturday with their first-choice scrum-half playing outside-half and without a regular goal-kicker. The latter role was filled, first, by the press-ganged outside-half, Andy Gomarsall, who was unsuccessful with his one kick, and then by the outside centre, Mike Tindall, who managed two out of two. England duly lost the match.

England finished their match against Australia on Saturday with their first-choice scrum-half playing outside-half and without a regular goal-kicker. The latter role was filled, first, by the press-ganged outside-half, Andy Gomarsall, who was unsuccessful with his one kick, and then by the outside centre, Mike Tindall, who managed two out of two. England duly lost the match.

Such an outcome must have been the result either of an extraordinary run of bad luck or of ineptitude on a cosmic scale on the part of the coach. I know which version I prefer.

I have met the gentleman concerned, Andy Robinson, only once. It was at the Beaujolais restaurant in Bath, where I was the guest of Stuart Barnes. Though Robinson was perfectly affable, it did not strike me that there was much going on above shoulder level. Rugby intelligence is, I know, very different from the stuff that gets you through examinations, but on last week's showing the England coach does not seem to have much of the former commodity either.

To begin with, there was the taking off of Henry Paul after 24 minutes. A week previously, against South Africa, Paul had been one of the heroes of the day for the cross-kick from which Mark Cueto scored his try.

It was for precisely this ability that Robinson had picked Paul. He had known him when they were at Bath, where Paul had not picked up his new code so readily as Jason Robinson had at Sale, or Gary Connolly at Harlequins. Still, Andy Robinson believed in Paul's abilities, as his predecessor, Sir Clive Woodward, manifestly did not.

There were dissentient voices. Two commentators who had played the game at the highest level, Barnes and Paul Ackford, thought that Paul was not the man for England and that Robinson would do better to stick to the known virtues of Will Greenwood.

Rugby in these islands or, for that matter, the northern hemisphere has never made up its mind about what it wants an inside centre to do. For many years the model was Will Carling or Scott Gibbs. Greenwood is not like this. But he is not the second five-eighth of New Zealand rugby either. Paul shows more of the gifts of the latter position, as a maker of space. So did Iestyn Harris for Wales, before his sad return to rugby league.

Robinson had presumably decided that this was the sort of player he wanted. And if Paul on Saturday did not do anything spectacularly right, he did not do anything especially wrong. Taking him off when Robinson did was not only an unnecessary humiliation for a gifted player. It was also an admission that, ever since succeeding Woodward, he had been making a wrong judgement not merely about the composition but about the nature of the England threequarter line.

By taking Paul off when he did, Robinson deprived himself of cover both at outside-half, where he could play if necessary, and at goal-kicking, where he has performed more than adequately for Gloucester. Even if Paul had been removed in the cavalier fashion he was, these two consequential difficulties need not have arisen if Robinson had chosen his substitutes with the slightest degree of competence.

We all know the minimum required: a goal-kicker, a scrum-half, an outside-half, a hooker and a prop who can, preferably, operate on either side of the scrum. The goal-kicker is often, but not always, the outside-half. The remaining two or three places, from a maximum of seven, can be filled fairly flexibly.

It is difficult to believe, but Robinson went into that match without a reserve kicker and, equally, without a reserve outside-half. Alex King could have done both jobs perfectly adequately. So could Andy Goode. If Robinson was relying on Paul in both capacities, so seeing no need to choose adequate substitutes, he should not have taken Paul off when he did or, indeed at all, until the match was safely won (which would not have been until the final whistle).

It is not a mistake that Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, is likely to make. He has Gavin Henson as a first-choice inside centre who is a cover for Stephen Jones both as a goal-kicker and at outside-half. I am inclined to think that the first-choice goal-kicker ought to be Henson. Even so, among the substitutes he has Ceri Sweeney, who can also perform both tasks. Indeed, Sweeney may even supplant Jones in the Wales side - which is not as ridiculous as thinking that poor Charlie Hodgson may displace Jonny Wilkinson.

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