Alex Goode bringing a new style to the England No 15 role
Coach Stuart Lancaster has kept faith with intelligence and imagination in the England back line. Alex Goode tells Chris Hewett how he has redefined a problem position
It is 11 long weeks since England found themselves the victims of a shocking assault by the touring Wallabies, who pinched one of the old country's Big Ideas – the development of a creative attacking axis linking the outside-half and full-back positions – and shaped it to their own specifications before returning it to its owners by inserting it in a place with minimal exposure to sunlight.
Since then, the full-back in question, Alex Goode, has celebrated a momentous victory over the All Blacks, helped ease Saracens safely into the knockout stage of the Heineken Cup, recovered from a shoulder injury and made a small piece of rugby history by participating in the first competitive match ever played on an artificial pitch. Yet snapshots of that distressing afternoon against Australia still flicker in his mind's eye.
"When something like that happens, it's down to you to take everything you can from the experience," he says. "In one way, the Australia game reinforced one of rugby's truths: that if you're not going forward as a team, it doesn't much matter what you do at No 10 or No 15. We were on the back foot for much of the game and as a result I found myself under a whole heap of pressure. But the Wallabies also showed us how effective that 10/15 combination can be. Kurtley Beale and Berrick Barnes didn't do anything we hadn't thought about doing ourselves, but facing it was instructive."
Previous red-rose coaching regimes may have reacted to the indignity of it all – of watching opponents inflict on England almost precisely what England had planned to inflict on them – by giving the thing up as a bad job and trying something else. Stuart Lancaster, the current boss, has taken a different approach. He could easily have "rested" Goode for this afternoon's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Twickenham, citing the player's recent orthopaedic problems, and replaced him with a full-back of the more direct, less cerebral kind, like Mike Brown of Harlequins or Ben Foden of Northampton. Instead, he has recommitted himself to the bolder, more imaginative model.
For those with a sense of history, this is fascinating stuff. Most observers would unhesitatingly identify the inside-centre role as England's principal problem position, and with good reason: since Will Greenwood, that most accomplished of midfielders, ended his seven-year tour of duty with the national team in 2004, successive coaches have cried out for an intelligent game-manager who was not either as weak as Aussie beer in defence or as slow as an ox in attack. Indeed, Lancaster's original explanation for picking Goode at the start of the autumn series was the need for "two footballers in the back line" – a telling comment that suggested the coach was less than spellbound by the footballing artistry of his first-choice centres, Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi, however much he might appreciate their physical gifts.
Yet the statistics indicate that, of all the positions on the field, full-back is the one that has given England the most grief. The record cap-winners in every other area – from Rory Underwood and Mike Tindall at wing and centre to Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Dawson at half-back; from Jason Leonard and Martin Johnson in the tight forwards to Lawrence Dallaglio among the loosies – played at least 70 games. The most decorated No 15? Step forward Matt Perry of Bath, with the grand total of 35.
In Perry's day – Clive Woodward, then unknighted, gave him his debut in 1997 – the nature of the full-back argument was much as it is now. Some coaches, not least the pioneering backs coach Brian Ashton, came to favour an ultra-rapid strike runner like Iain Balshaw or, latterly, Jason Robinson. Woodward prized the alternative virtues in Perry's make-up: his peerless defensive game (alone among England players, he was neither fazed nor flattened by the freakish Jonah Lomu); his reliability in contact (his only serious coughing-up of possession was during the 1999 World Cup game against the All Blacks, when Dallaglio presented him with a hospital pass of ICU proportions); and, crucially, his footballing prowess.
Perry was a midfielder by upbringing, rather than a pure wing like Robinson, who may well have been the best No 11 ever to play for England and should, in retrospect, have stayed put. Goode comes from the same tradition, and if Australia continue to play Barnes, another outside-half, in his new role – and after his performance at Twickenham in November, they'd be daft not to – we could be on the cusp of a new age of very superior full-back strategy.
"I think the reason nobody has won too many caps in the 15 position is that the game changes all the time and the full-back role changes with it, perhaps more than any other position," Goode says. "There are the two basic types and, given my background, I'm very much from one side of the fence: the time I spent as a No 10 has helped me with my kicking, my distribution, my game understanding and my sense of what's needed when it comes to covering the backfield. Other guys, like Israel Dagg of New Zealand, are seriously quick and natural finishers. But you have to learn to do a bit of the other, don't you? The All Blacks have worked really on Dagg's breadth of game and he's a much more rounded player because of it. Me? I don't think I'm too bad a runner, actually."
When Goode runs, he often puts the fear of God into the supporters in the stands and, perhaps, into his own colleagues, yet his ability to disappear up a cul-de-sac and emerge in one piece, ball still in hand, is uncanny. Richard Hill, the World Cup-winning flanker who now performs a mentoring role at Saracens, once offered an interesting explanation. "He's low-slung," Hill said, "and it makes opponents think he's slower than he is." Goode laughs at the story. "So Hilly thinks I have a fat arse. Great."
Goode's own explanation is, unsurprisingly, rather different. "I think I assess situations quite well," he says. "It comes in part from playing a lot of rugby at 10, where you get used to operating in heavy congestion, and in part from learning more about the full-back trade. When the ball is kicked behind you, the opposition chase is good and you turn to face three or four potential tacklers – something that happens all the time – that's a cul-de-sac right there. The key thing is footwork, because it's vital to beat the first man. If you can do that, help is never far away."
It was Eddie Jones, the former Wallaby coach now working with Japan, who, during a brief spell in charge of Saracens, first moved Goode from 10 to 15. "It was a big step," he recalls, "but I was still a young outside-half and the chance of watching someone as experienced as Glen Jackson [the New Zealander who has now been fast-tracked as an international referee] play that role directly in front of me was only going to help my development.
"As things unfolded and I found I could really express myself at full-back, we struck up a really good relationship. Glen could be the harshest man in the world, mind you: if I called for the ball and then messed up, he'd shout and scream and swear, asking me what the hell I thought I was doing. When he retired, I was sorry to see him go. Honestly. By the end, we had this fantastic sense of mutual trust. I learnt a lot from him and I still count him as a great friend. Even if he is a ref."
Today, Goode will be one of three "footballers" in the England back line, rather than one of two: the selection of Billy Twelvetrees at inside-centre adds a new element to the mix. The full-back is as intrigued as anyone. "We've been working through things in training and, to be honest with you, the new attacking shape hasn't really impacted on what I do," he says. "But then, it's not all about me, is it? And anyway, I've never had a problem with fresh subtleties and variations."
One of the happier facts of rugby life is that good guys sometimes receive their just rewards: there may never have been a more likeable, less affected England player than Perry and it was he who won the positional battle with Balshaw during the great British and Irish Lions series in Australia a dozen years ago. The question now is whether the Goode guy can finish what he has started by reinventing the full-back role and giving his country a cutting-edge advantage into the bargain.
Full details: England caps
* Most Eng appearances, games at full-back only
Matt Perry (1997-2001)
Points 50 Caps 35
Jon Webb (1987-93)
Points 296 Caps 33
Ben Foden (2010-12)
Points 30 Caps 27
Josh Lewsey (2001-07)
Points 60 Caps 27
Jason Robinson (2001-07)
Points 65 Caps 27
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