The promotion of Ben Foden as an uncapped player in England's revamped elite squad for the Six Nations says more about the North-ampton coach, Jim Mallinder, and rather less about Sale's Philippe Saint-André. For years, the Rugby Football Union had been frustrated by Sale's refusal to play Foden in what they regarded as his natural position – scrum-half. The Cheshire club tended to play him anywhere butNo 9, so when he left for Franklin's Gardens at the end of last season, things could only get better.
Immeasurably so, as it happens. Mallinder, a former Sale coach, recruited Foden after losing the New Zealander Mark Robinson, and the move has paid off for the player and the club. Foden will give Danny Care and Harry Ellis a run for their Red Rose money provided he is regardedas a scrum-half rather than a wing or full-back.
The trouble is, Martin Johnson, the England manager, tends to favour the so-called utility back. At the beginning of the season Delon Armitage was not among the top 64 players in England but as injuries or lack of form ruled out a host of front-runners, the London Irish player took his chance brilliantly and was one of the few to emerge from the autumn carnage with his reputation enhanced.
Now, with the selection of Olly Morgan, who has been in fine form for Gloucester at No 15, ahead of his club colleague Olly Barkley, England reckon they have a choice of five full- backs: Armitage, Morgan, Foden, Mark Cueto and Mathew Tait. But Foden is a scrum-half, Cueto is an out-and-out wing and Tait a centre.
"We have a rebalanced squad," Johnson said. "We had three No 12s in the squad before, which left us a bit thin in the back three. Now our back-three combinations give us more flexibility. Tait can play at 13, full-back or wing and Cueto can play full-back or wing, so we've got more options. It's especially important for a tournament like the Six Nations."
Poor Tait doesn't know whether he's coming or going. When he played centre in the stifling World Cup final against South Africa he made the most electrifying break of the match, which should have led to a Cueto try, which in turn could have led to the Webb Ellis Cup.
Yet Johnson is saying: "Mathew is occupying one of our wing slots. He's had his injury problems and when he's been available he hasn't always been at his best. Sale tend to pick him at No 15 but use him as a 13 in defence. It's an issue for him." It's an issue for England. As we've already seen with the Foden case, Sale don't always get it right, and Tait's move from Newcastle hasn't worked nearly as well as Toby Flood's to Leicester.
It is a given that Johnson and Rob Andrew, the elite rugby director, will not always see eye to eye, and that is clearly the case over Tait. Andrew, who in a previous existence coached Tait at Newcastle, said: "It's getting close to the point where he has to nail down one position and stick to it. It hasn't done Mathew any favours."
Well, it wouldn't. Why don't they let the specialists specialise and instil some confidence into the back line? No other major rugby-playing nation messes around with the hybrid concept more than England, and what good has it done them? It was Johnson's predecessor, Brian Ashton, who thought he could convert Cueto into a full-back, but at Test level the playeris a wing who has proven, time and again, that he is a first-rate finisher.
Anybody would play for England anywhere – if Jamie Noon was asked to play in the back row he wouldn't turn it down – but it is up to the selectors to get the right combinations, and since Andy Robinson's day they have made a mess of things.
At least Johnson was clear on one thing: Steve Borthwick will captain England when they begin their Six Nations campaign against Italy next month. "Steve did an outstanding job for us in the autumn," Johnson said. "Much of it was done in very difficult circumstances. Captaincy is easy when you're in a winning side or surrounded by experienced players. Steve did not have either of those advantages."
Finally, a vote of confidence. Not quite. "No one is guaranteed a place in the starting team and the captaincywill be decided on a game-by-game basis," Johnson said. As one of England's greatest leaders, Johnson knows that confidence and continuity are key factors, and he needs to instil both into a squad who were exposed by the southern-hemisphere heavyweights in November. And that was at what was once called Fortress Twickenham.Reuse content