England did precisely as well at last year's World Cup as those in touch with rugby reality anticipated, but only half as well as hoped by the vast multitudes who made the fundamental error of assuming Martin Johnson's stellar playing career automatically qualified him for the very different role of national manager. There is, therefore, a striking sense of symmetry in the air at the dawning of a new red-rose age, for a mere 50 per cent of those responsible for messing things up so royally during the autumn can be completely confident of staying in the squad for next month's start of the Six Nations Championship.
Stuart Lancaster, the former Leeds coach promoted from a relatively low-profile job on the Rugby Football Union staff and asked to guide England through the next few challenging weeks on a caretaker basis, has been talking about clean slates and new brooms for a month now. Today, he will prove himself true to his word by fast-tracking a group of young Premiership players – not to mention a young Celtic League player in the substantial form of the Scarlets No 8 Ben Morgan – into representative contention at the expense of some of the biggest names in English rugby. As far as the Cumbrian is concerned, the past is another country. New Zealand, in this case.
Lancaster is at least as interested in skill as he is in size – perhaps the most crucial departure from the approach of the Johnson regime. He wants a second footballer in his midfield, rather than a Steady Eddie at No 10 and a couple of 24-carat bosh merchants at centre, and is equally keen to inject some additional guile into a back-row unit that was exposed in all its pedestrian limitations in All Black country by the likes of Juan Fernandez Lobbe, the brilliant Argentine No 8, and Imanol Harinordoquy, the sensational Basque who drove France towards an unexpected appearance in the final.
In this, Lancaster has the significant support of someone who knows what it is to lay hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy. "I'd prefer to see Stuart getting footballers in the team rather than worry about physicality," said Lawrence Dallaglio, the celebrated No 8 and red-rose captain who combined the two virtues to such effect that he played Test rugby for more than a decade. "It's easier to put a footballer in the gym than it is to turn a gym monkey into a footballer."
Dallaglio was keen to talk about the back-row options open to Lancaster, pushing the claims of the Northampton flanker Tom Wood as Six Nations skipper and Chris Robshaw of Harlequins as a possible No 8. He also suggested that Tom Croft of Leicester, such a spectacular success on the blind-side of the scrum with the Lions in South Africa in 2009 but generally less effective with England, might be used as a lock, thereby freeing up a space for the likes of Morgan.
The balance of the breakaway unit will be crucial to England's fortunes, not least against a dangerous Scottish combination at Murrayfield early next month – the first outing for Lancaster's side. The coach has plenty of room for manoeuvre in this department: Lewis Moody, the World Cup captain, has retired; James Haskell has cut himself off from red-rose business by negotiating contracts in Japan and New Zealand; Nick Easter is heavily rumoured to be on his way out of the squad. But there are delicate judgements to be made. Wood is no more a pure open-side flanker than Moody was and if Lancaster was really bold, he would opt for the pace and panache of Andy Saull, the Saracens forward, and play Wood elsewhere.
As for the skill element at No 8, Luke Narraway of Gloucester routinely cuts lines and throws passes that put everyone else in the country to shame. He is also a master of the long-range supporting game, so if Lancaster turns his face against him now – and with rumours circulating of the hard-hitting Northampton back-rower Calum Clark being drafted in, this seemed increasingly likely yesterday – there will be at least the hint of a disconnect between what the coach says he wants, and what he is prepared to do.
Another opportunity will be spurned if Billy Twelvetrees, the Leicester midfielder, is not moved up from the second-string Saxons squad. England have long talked a good game when it comes to selecting and supporting a genuine footballer at inside centre, but invariably play a bad one when push comes to shove. Olly Barkley and Shane Geraghty were tried by Johnson before being unceremoniously ditched, while Toby Flood was never given the opportunity to thrive in what many good judges consider his optimum position. The talk now is of Brad Barritt of Saracens taking on the role that has bemused and befuddled England selectors since the uniquely gifted Will Greenwood faded from view eight years ago. Barritt is both a hard nut and a consistent performer, but is he a creative spirit with a touch of the "je ne sais quoi" in him? Not that anyone has noticed.
Under the agreement between the RFU and the Premiership clubs, Lancaster can change 10 players from the elite squad pieced together by Johnson last summer, above and beyond those who have retired or are suffering from long-term injuries. Any kind of limit is restrictive, but with Moody and Jonny Wilkinson calling time on Test rugby, Steve Thompson in retirement and others – Haskell, Simon Shaw, Andrew Sheridan, Richard Wigglesworth – off-limits for other reasons, the new coach has what amounts to a free hand.
Assuming that lines have been drawn through the names of Mark Cueto, Mike Tindall, Shontayne Hape and Easter, there is room for a dozen players who took no part in the comedy of the 2011 World Cup: more if Lancaster decides that Delon Armitage of London Irish is more trouble than he is worth and David Wilson of Bath has slipped behind some of the bright young scrummagers making their way in the game. Like every coach before him, the caretaker will pick from strength in some areas – wing, prop, loose forward – and from weakness in others, notably scrum-half and hooker. Quite what he makes of the conundrum, we will discover today.
Bold enough? Kids in the frame
Billy Twelvetrees (inside centre, 22): The Leicester man is the best long passer of a ball on the run playing Premiership rugby – including foreigners. As he also kicks the ball a mile and has size on his side, what's not to like?
Jamie George (hooker, 21): The Saracens front-rower has all the necessary skills and is coping well with the physicality of life in the Premiership. A shining, if distant, light in the positional darkness.
Matt Garvey (lock, 24): Eye-catching performances have thrust the London Irish player into the thoughts of some influential people. Strong on the hoof and happy when the fur flies, he also has energy to spare.
Andy Saull (open-side flanker, 23): Saracens' old-fashioned roaming breakaway loves the wide open prairies. Not a giant, but has pace and is sufficiently highly skilled to make game-breaking contributions.
Henry Trinder (outside centre, 22): A transformative figure in Gloucester's back division who also happens to be a fast learner. England are not so blessed in midfield that they can afford to ignore him.
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