Alan Watkins: Woodward's men become victims of modern game

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The Independent Online

Whatever else I may be, I am not, I hope, a hypocrite. So it would be idle to pretend that I had any great feelings of sorrow, either for England's defeat by France or for their relatively low place in the Six Nations table, their worst position in a decade. As the second book of Samuel puts it (i.25): "How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!''

It was very different when the international season began on 14 February, which is not so long ago. Though France were given a chance of the title, England were clear favourites. A home-nations XV would have consisted of the entire World Cup-winning side with, however, Brian O'Driscoll outside Will Greenwood in the centre. This solitary Irish edition apart, they would all have been England players.

As my own selection at the end of this column indicates, things are not like that any more. Others might choose a different team, and no one could grumble. But we may be fairly sure that there would not be a clear preponderance of England players. The representatives of what are patronisingly dubbed the Celtic nations, of Ireland in particular, would be on duty as well.

There is nothing mysterious about what has happened. The loss of Jonny Wilkinson through injury was a grievous blow. In one sense, it was nobody's fault: certainly not that of England's head coach, Clive Woodward. In another sense, however, we were all to blame: or, rather, the modern game which we support was to blame.

For Wilkinson was another victim of too much rugby, a development which has been brought about by simple financial greed and is witnessed by a quite unnecessary and foolishly taxing England tour of Australia and New Zealand in the summer. The other development is that outside-halves are now expected to tackle as if they were back-row forwards, a duty which Wilkinson did not shirk and, indeed, gave every impression of enjoying.

Then there was the retirement of Martin Johnson, which was probably even more important in the scheme of things. Johnson is a strong-minded character who decided to get out - or to get out of the international game - when he was at the top. Woodward could almost certainly not have persuaded him to stay. Though I am not in Woodward's confidence, still less in Johnson's, he does not seem to have tried very hard to persuade him.

With two other players, however, Woodward virtually showed them the door, with a complimentary pair of carpet slippers. I refer to Jason Leonard and Neil Back. With Back, he went so far as to add somewhat gracelessly that it was not his function to organise retirement parties. Back himself would certainly not come top of the class at the Charm School. And yet England have missed him badly this season. Richard Hill is no longer a convincing No7 - if he ever was one.

In England and, even if to a lesser extent, in Wales also, the open-side flanker is becoming an endangered species. It was crazy of Steve Hansen, the retiring Wales coach, not to have Martin Williams in the starting line-up for every single international. Interestingly, only Ireland have consistently followed a policy of playing a specialist No7, first Keith Gleeson and, after Gleeson's injury, David Wallace. And, taking one game with another, Ireland have, apart from France, fielded the strongest pack in the competition.

Jason Leonard, unlike Back, might very well be top in the Charm School. As a player, he was not missed as Back was. As a good influence, however, he was by all accounts irreplaceable. There was no reason why Woodward could not have had him on the bench - if necessary, as part of an entire substitute front row - throughout the season.

A final word about my selection. Josh Lewsey is preferred to Jason Robinson, partly because of his outstanding try on Saturday night, when he had a lot to do, but mainly because Robinson will allow the ball to bounce dangerously, even when his natural speed would enable him to catch it on the full.

However, Lewsey is at full-back, beating strong competition from Rhys Williams and Gareth Thomas, which enables me to put Gordon D'Arcy on the wing. This in turn gives Iestyn Harris a deserved place at inside-centre. Stephen Jones, Paul Grayson and Olly Barkley all performed more than competently at outside-half, but I am going for Ronan O'Gara. Lawrence Dallaglio is back in his original and best position of No6.

ALAN WATKINS' HOME NATIONS XV: Lewsey (England); G D'Arcy (Ireland), B O'Driscoll (Ireland), I Harris (Wales), B Cohen (England); R O'Gara (Ireland), M Dawson (England); T Smith (Scotland), R McBryde (Wales), P Vickery (England), P O'Connell (Ireland), M O'Kelly (Ireland), L Dalliaglio (England), S Taylor (Scotland), M Williams (Wales).