Whoever gets the England job must start by inflicting shock of the new
Johnson successor must not worry about Six Nations results as much as blooding kids for next World Cup
Six days ago, the 20-year-old Saracens midfielder Owen Farrell played a Heineken Cup blinder against the Italians of Treviso, as did two fellow members of the Premiership team's brilliant brat pack, the wing James Short and the flanker Andy Saull.
The crowd at Vicarage Road was not quite of world-record proportions – for a club game in these islands, it missed the mark by approximately 80,000 – but the youngsters would have felt a whole lot better about life had the 5,077 gate been a 5,078 gate instead. Sadly for them, nobody from the England hierarchy was at the rickety old stadium in Watford to gauge their progress. Not a single soul.
This is where national rugby affairs currently stand, and it is a perilous place to be sure. The Grimpen Mire of Dartmoor seems solid ground by comparison. A new elite squad is scheduled to be named in 40 days' time and the 2012 Six Nations Championship is a mere 11 weeks distant, yet there is no guarantee – there may not even be much chance – that Martin Johnson's successor as head honcho will be in place in time to pick the first or prepare for the second. And to think that Geoff Cooke, that ultra-successful red-rose coach of the late 1980s and early '90s, felt able to say this week that there was no need for the great and good of Twickenham, such as they are, to start rushing.
Yet there is a positive side to all this. The new manager-cum-coach will, assuming the Rugby Football Union identifies its preferred candidate sooner rather than later and does not mess up the contractual negotiations to such an extent that everyone ends up in front of Mr Justice Cocklecarrot at the High Court, have virtually an entire World Cup cycle in which to make some sense of this England farrago: to restore some dignity and authority to the national set-up – instil some discipline, develop something resembling a professional culture and, dare we say it, get the team playing some rugby worth watching.
Where to start? By taking an axe to the squad selected for duty at the World Cup and hacking off at least a third of it. Five senior members of that party are already players of the past: the captain Lewis Moody has retired from international rugby; Mike Tindall is history because he behaved like a fool in a very public place; Jonny Wilkinson, Simon Shaw and Tom Palmer are off-limits because they are playing their club rugby in France and are therefore ineligible under new selection rules. A sixth man, James Haskell, is also abroad and will not feature in the Six Nations, but as he has a future ahead of him rather than behind him, he is likely to return to the elite group when he resurfaces at Wasps next summer.
We can, and certainly should, add to this list at least half a dozen players – Mark Cueto and Shontayne Hape, Andrew Sheridan and Steve Thompson, Louis Deacon and Nick Easter – who have no realistic prospect of making it to 2015. Cueto and Easter have something to offer England over the next 12 months, as would Sheridan if he could only keep himself fit, but what in God's name is the point? As Johnson himself said in bidding his farewells on Wednesday, modern international rugby is about the World Cup and nothing but the World Cup, save a short and breathless spell of Lions business between tournaments.
Sir Clive Woodward might see it another way, given his oft-repeated dictum that "the only thing that matters is the next game", and his view must count for something. He did win a world title, after all. But one of the most successful current coaches, Warren Gatland of Wales, believes that argument to be old hat. "Some people take this whole World Cup cycle thing more seriously than others, but I'm very definitely conscious of it and it plays a big part in my thinking," he told this newspaper as he was drawing up his plans for this year's tournament.
"You don't arrive at a World Cup in the best possible shape – with depth and experience in your squad, with your players in peak physical condition – by delaying taking the hard decisions and throwing things together at the last minute. If I thought one of my players wasn't going to make it to a World Cup, he wouldn't be in the side. I'd say: 'Sorry, but thanks for everything'." Given the Welsh performance levels in New Zealand, the queue of people waiting to tell him he's wrong should be very short indeed.
Andy Robinson, who succeeded Woodward in the England job, once said that team-building opportunities were at a premium because certain members of the Twickenham hierarchy, most notably the then chief executive Francis Baron, measured every international defeat in pounds, shillings and pence: lost replica shirt sales, basically. The idea of a little Six Nations slippage being tolerated for the long-term good was for the birds.
But now, as the RFU searches for fragments of hope with which to shore itself against the ruins of Johnson's regime, there might be a coming to terms with the notion in the way the French came to terms with it at the start of Marc Lièvremont's tenure. The new coach should be able to persuade his employers, as Lièvremont did, that the reintegration of those boundary-pushing, game-expanding talents spurned by Johnson – the exiled outside-half Danny Cipriani being the most obvious example – will take more than a couple of months. Apart from anything else, the chief executive will be as new to Planet Twickenham as he is, and therefore in the worst possible position to argue.
The moment the new coaching team is put in place, they should think proactively about the Farrells and Saulls and Jamie Gibsons, the likes of Joe Marler and Henry Trinder and Charlie Sharples. No one in his right mind would blood them simultaneously against the Scots in Edinburgh on the first weekend in February, but there is comfortably enough room in a 32-man elite squad to accommodate them: to involve them fully in training and to give them a run over the course of a tournament where, just for once, victory is not the thing that matters.
When he sits down and thinks about it, Woodward himself will concur, for he found himself in one of these rare moments, right at the start of his stewardship of the national team. At that point, he was so open to suggestion, so keen to embrace every strand of thought, that he even encouraged members of the media to push selection ideas his way. (Johnson? He was just a little different, telling the press during the World Cup: "The moment you people influence what I do, you can criticise me to the ends of the earth.") When Woodward named his first side, for the drawn Test with the Wallabies at Twickenham in the autumn of 1997, a third of the starting line-up were on debut.
If ever England needed the shock of the new, the time is now. There is barely a professional club academy in the land that has not produced a youngster of Test potential over the last couple of years. Johnson's successor should not wait until 2014 to acknowledge the fact and act on it.
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