Do England really need another veteran?
As Shaw, 36, joins squad to face the All Blacks, Chris Hewett asks why Johnson has failed to develop his most promising young talents
Tuesday 17 November 2009
Simon Shaw, recent autobiographer and senior citizen of the red-rose engine room whose exploits for the British and Irish Lions on the high veld of South Africa last summer could not have been more energy-charged had he been in his late teens rather than his mid-30s, was back in camp yesterday as England launched their preparations for this weekend's meeting with the New Zealand at Twickenham. No doubt Shaw performed brilliantly in training, reminding Martin Johnson – the man who kept him out of the national side for years – of his all-embracing skill set ahead of the last, and most thankless, of this year's Tests.
Johnson must be sorely tempted to recall the Wasps forward, who turned 36 in September. Even when teams are making a pig's ear of things as comprehensively as England, a touch of know-how here and there can make a difference – especially in areas where their opponents are most vulnerable, as the All Blacks are in the second row. The best that can be said for Louis Deacon, the man currently playing the "tractor" role alongside Steve Borthwick, is that he lacks nothing in the effort department. The very worst that can be said about Shaw (pictured) is that he's bloody good. No contest there, then.
Yet Shaw's reappearance at this point might drop England even deeper in the mire with regards to the next World Cup, now less than two years – and no more than 17 internationals – away. Will Shaw be on the plane to Auckland in the early autumn of 2011? There is more chance of the Prime Minster spell-checking his shopping list. Courtney Lawes, who sat on the bench as second-row cover against Argentina last weekend but failed to make it onto the field, will not be 36 for another four World Cups. One of these men represents the future. The other goes by the name of Shaw.
The Johnson regime may be utterly secure in the eyes of the Rugby Football Union – not least because the RFU behaved so abominably in establishing it, even the slightest acknowledgement that they got it wrong would leave some very senior figures open to severe public ridicule – but it is guilty of many crimes and misdemeanours: a depressing lack of managerial control during the blighted tour of New Zealand in 2008; a dismissive attitude to those parts of the agreement with the Premiership clubs on player release that do not happen to suit it; a foolhardy policy towards those playing their club rugby in France that collapsed at the first sign of pressure.
But the worst aspect of it, by far, is the failure to accelerate the international development of the best young English talent in time for the global tournament in 2011. Johnson might point to the blooding of David Wilson, the new-generation tight-head prop from Bath, but Wilson would not have played against the Wallabies 10 days ago had the elderly Phil Vickery or the positively ancient Julian White been available for selection. Shane Geraghty? He's there because of injuries to others. Dylan Hartley? Against Australia, he had to play second fiddle to dear old Steve Thompson.
Whatever happened to Mathew Tait, who started the 2007 World Cup final and almost won it for England with a jaw-dropping piece of midfield mastery? Or Tom Varndell, capped as long ago as 2005 and still the fastest wing in the country by a street, but not even a blip on the radar these days. Or Danny Cipriani? The management's treatment of the Boy Wonder may come to be seen as a scandal too far.
Selected ahead of Jonny Wilkinson, no less, when Brian Ashton last coached the team, his injury record since has been anything but reassuring. But having picked him far too early this time last year – the outside-half had not long recovered from a grisly ankle injury – the management's abandonment of him since has been spellbindingly counter-productive.
Will Carling, the former England captain, was heard to say on the radio yesterday that the current England back division had "lots of pace" and was being let down by the coaching staff, who somehow made them look slow. When an ex-player of Carling's renown gets it round his neck to such a degree, there really is no hope. Paul Hodgson and Wilkinson may have many qualities, but express speed is not among them. Mark Cueto? The Sale wing does some fine things, but when it came to a foot race with the Argentine full-back Horacio Agulla, he did not exactly disappear into the distance. Matt Banahan? He is hardly Usain Bolt. Bernie the Bolt, more like.
Lack of pace being one of England's principal problems, there is no mileage at this stage of a World Cup cycle in going for the superannuated ahead of the super-quick. Varndell, Tait, Cipriani and, at the sharp end, the startlingly athletic Lawes could, and should, be playing now, preferably together. It is the way the Wallabies would do it. And the French. And the Welsh.
Since their World Cup semi-final defeat by England in Paris a little over two years ago, France have changed their entire tight five, drafted in two exciting new loose forwards, introduced a raft of fresh scrum-halves and rebuilt their midfield. The Australians have made similarly dramatic changes. Only half a dozen of those who beat England so comfortably in the first of the autumn Tests featured in the World Cup quarter-final in 2007.
By hook or by crook, England are getting it right in the back row of the scrum, where young thrusting types like Tom Croft and James Haskell will be central figures in 2011. But no one wins a World Cup with loose forwards alone. Not even the 1987 All Blacks would have claimed that – and they boasted the finest combination in history.
The future today: Neglected prospects who deserve a break
MATHEW TAIT Still only 23, Tait is the most dangerous running centre available. However, Johnson has sent him home ahead of both internationals thus far, preferring the more “direct” approach at No 13.
DANNY CIPRIANI Scarily talented, but a long way out of favour with the current England regime. His beautifully constructed match-winning performance against Ireland in 2008 seems an awfully long time ago.
COURTNEY LAWES A new kid on the street, talked up by Johnson and his colleagues as a major contender for a starting place at lock. If the selectors are brave, they will give him his head.
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