Autumn internationals: Plenty of 15s but is Mike Brown the best bet?
England have an array of talented full-backs but they are all lacking certain different skills
Four years ago, to the very month, the England manager Martin Johnson found himself in such an unholy pickle over the full-back position that he handed Ugo Monye the No 15 shirt for a Twickenham Test against Argentina. Monye was a high-class wing blessed with the straight-line speed of a genuine sprinter, a proud Londoner, a devout Christian, a charitable soul, a gentleman, a scholar… and just about the most popular rugby player in the land. What he was not – and his performance that day proved it beyond all reasonable doubt – was anyone's idea of a full-back.
When the Wallabies descend on the old cabbage patch with plans to rip the bloody English out of the ground by their roots, another Harlequin will perform the role. Who will say that Mike Brown does not deserve his place? Unlike his clubmate, who was selected out of position because of an acute shortage of viable alternatives, the incumbent has fought off challenges from two fiercely ambitious rivals in Ben Foden and Alex Goode, and as there is not a more determined or harder working individual in the domestic game – he is the street fighter of the full-back clan, the blue-collar workaholic with a crimson streak of attitude – we can expect him to defend his jersey with a rare passion.
According to Stuart Lancaster, who succeeded Johnson after the tragicomic shambles of the 2011 World Cup campaign in New Zealand, we now have a full-back feast rather than a famine. "It's just about the most competitive position of the lot," Lancaster said this week, thinking not only of the three candidates in the elite squad, but also of two major-league talents in the second-tier Saxons set-up: Mathew Tait of Leicester and his stylistic doppelgänger, Elliot Daly of Wasps.
But only a fool confuses quantity with quality, and Lancaster is no fool. It is far from clear that any of the current contenders has what it takes to provide England with the combination of attacking threat and defensive security they will need when they run into the likes of the two Israels – Dagg of New Zealand, Folau of Australia – at the home World Cup, which is now less than two years distant. Indeed, Folau may well reinforce the point in front of 82,000 spectators this afternoon. With the possible exception of Tait, whose principal problems, as ever, are to do with his inability to stay fit for longer than a sporting nanosecond, Lancaster's choices are incomplete: disparate parts of full-backs, pretending to be whole.
Brown is a courageous and effective defender with a strong left-footed kicking game and the happy knack of breaking first-up tackles, but can he open up opponents with Dagg-like wizardry or Folau-ish athleticism? Goode, who comes from an outside-half's background, has the vision and intelligence, but lacks pace. Foden is as quick as you like, but lacks the vision thing. Daly? For all his gifts, 2015 may come too early for him.
All this goes to the heart of what it takes to be a full-back worth his salt at international level. "So many people in the game believe that first things first, a No 15 must be able to anticipate and deal with the opposition's kicking game – that he must be safe under the high ball," says Brian Ashton, the former England coach whose framing of the red-rose attacking game in the early years of the last decade resulted in a try glut that may never be repeated. "I'd turn the argument on its head by asking a different set of questions. Who is our most explosive runner? Who has the most positive attacking mindset? Let's play him in the position. Worried about him under the high ball? Concerned about the strength of his boot? We can teach him those things. What we can't teach him are the so-called add-ons, which I prefer to see as the basics."
The full-backs in Ashton's personal pantheon are two Frenchmen, his great friend Pierre Villepreux and the incomparable Serge Blanco, and an All Black of a more recent vintage, Christian Cullen. All three were pure attacking spirits, albeit of different stripes. Villepreux brought an unprecedented depth of thought to the union game and its possibilities, while Blanco's mesmerising brilliance stemmed from an understanding of space in its highest form. Cullen? He was instinct made flesh.
"I can remember working alongside Christian on a coaching course in the United States," Ashton says. "When you asked him to explain some of the things he did, he found it difficult. He certainly couldn't draw you a diagram on a blackboard. Asked to do it on the pitch with a ball in his hand and it was a different story. It was fascinating and exhilarating to see him close up."
When Ashton took England to the 2007 World Cup in France and made it through to the final, his full-back was Jason Robinson. "I don't suppose Jason was really a full-back in the truest sense," he admits. "He was just Jason. We played him there because he had extreme pace, unbelievable footwork and a bold mindset that allowed him to translate thoughts into action. There was something of a maverick about him, but he was unfailingly positive in intent. He wanted to counter-attack if at all possible and he had the capability to carry it out. He was safe enough under the high ball, but that was no more than a starting point. It certainly wasn't an end in itself."
Ashton paints the picture of his ideal full-back this way: "I like to see a No 15 who thinks, 'Right, they've kicked the ball to us. Let's make sure we score before we give it back to them.' That's the right mindset from my perspective. This leads to the question of physical capacity, the ability to translate ideas into action. A full-back needs some wheels – he needs to be quick and blessed with good footwork. If he's going to hit the line at pace, does he have the pace to change the tempo of the move? If he does, he's going to make life very difficult for the opposing defenders.
"It interests me that Mike Brown, who is clearly a very committed player, has taken to doing sprint work with Margot Wells [who coached her husband Allan to Olympic 100 metres gold at the 1980 Moscow Games]. I've nothing against Margot: she's outstanding at what she does. But international-class sprinters can take five years to shave a fraction of a second off their times, and that's without carrying the ball or being clattered by tacklers. If you're not born with speed, it's a difficult thing to come by."
Dagg and Folau are the two full-backs who "jump out at you," Ashton says. "I'm keen to see how Folau plays in this game. He has pretty much everything we've been talking about: the physicality that comes from playing rugby league at the highest level; the aerial game that goes with the Aussie Rules code; he's fast; he reads the game well, even though he's not spent much time in union."
There is no full-back in the England squad boasting anything like this breadth and range. When Ashton worked with Tait between 2005 and 2008, he was a specialist outside centre. In his latest incarnation at Welford Road, he is a full-time No 15 – a move the former coach believes could work for him. "He meets many of the requirements, although on the odd occasion he played the role in my time, his initial decision-making on receipt of the ball was not quite up to scratch. By playing the role regularly at a high level, I'm sure he can put that issue to bed."
And Daly? "From what I've seen, he has a lot going for him. Like Mathew, he comes from an outside centre's background, and that makes him a good reader in the wide open spaces. The important thing for any full-back with an eye on that England place is that he's not risk-averse. My advice? If you're not a risk-taker, don't wear the 15 shirt."
No one donning that jersey between now and the global gathering in 2015 is likely to suffer as Monye suffered in 2009, and for that we can be truly thankful. But in international rugby, a player does not cut it simply by not being bad. Lancaster has still to decide exactly what he wants from his England full-back. The time has come for him to make a call.
Mike Brown (Harlequins; Debut 2007; Caps 18; Points 0)
Strengths Courageous defender. Strong left-footed kicker
Weakness Might lack that little bit of magic
Ben Foden (Northampton; 2009/32/35)
Strength Has express pace
Weakness Not as creative as he might be
Alex Goode (Saracens; 2012/11/0)
Strength Great footballing awareness
Weakness Lack of pace
Mathew Tait (Leicester; 2005/38/25)
Strengths Ticks more boxes than anyone
Weakness Prone to long-term injury
Elliot Daly (Wasps; not yet/0/0)
Strengths Refreshing attacking instinct and a long-range marksman
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