Brian Ashton: It's a win-win situation for new England set-up
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 07 January 2012
It is with keen anticipation – keener than usual following Martin Johnson's resignation as England manager and a clear-out of the coaching staff – that the rugby public await next week's announcement of the new Elite Player Squad ahead of the Six Nations Championship.
Stuart Lancaster and his colleagues have been weighing up their options for the best part of a month now and in many ways they find themselves in a win-win situation. In this pressurised day and age, the chance to tread a totally fresh pathway with a major national side is a rare opportunity indeed.
There seems to be a groundswell of opinion among the players that now is the time to take some personal responsibility in putting together a diverse and challenging game. Can this desire be translated into action? That's a big question, but I'm sure Stuart and company, "caretakers" as they are, believe they can put the Rugby Football Union in a difficult position regarding the appointment of a longer-term head coach at the end of the tournament. They must be relishing the prospect of doing so.
The usual performance-versus-result debate will rear its head among the learned folk who populate our sport and while I made my views on the subject clear in my last column of 2011, I'm sure that it will be a major contributory factor in the selectorial ponderings of Stuart and the fellow members of his triumvirate, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell. My fervent hope is that they alone are involved in the decision-making on the make-up of the 32-man squad and their approach to England's programme in the short term. What they don't need is outside interference.
Possibly the most passionate arguments will surround the midfield, for this is the heartbeat of a team in terms of playing style – the surest indicator of the way a side are approaching their rugby.
But first we must look at the scrum-half situation. Everything is opening up for Ben Youngs of Leicester, thanks largely to Danny Care's inability to look after himself off the field. England need a No 9 who can keep his temper in check, control his own game and be a positive influence on those around him in the white heat of battle. So far, no one has demonstrated the capacity to meet these criteria on a consistent basis.
At full-back, much attention has been lavished on Mike Brown of Harlequins, who has delivered excellent performances throughout the first half of the season. The game-breaking Nick Abendanon of Bath is also catching the eye. Even so, I expect a rejuvenated Ben Foden to hang on to his spot. As for the wing positions, there are pure finishers aplenty. What I want to know is: where are all the footballing flyers? Are they extinct? I haven't seen enough of Gloucester's much talked about Charlie Sharples to know whether he is one of those creatures – a wing as effective in distribution and in his work off the ball as he is when he has the white line in front of him. What I do know is that a real footballer like Mike Slemen (those of a certain age will remember him, I'm sure) is worth a hell of a lot to a team. Whatever the selections at scrum-half and back three, they will count for precious little if things do not function in midfield, at 10, 12 and 13. Listening to and reading pundits who see far more top-level rugby than yours truly, there are candidates putting up their hands in each of these positions. This is all well and good, but the key elements are the balance and leadership a midfield trio bring to a team.
It may be that the coaches will base everything on the short-term policy of winning the next game, in which case the traditional English No 12 might come into play – the kind of inside centre whose first instinct is to go forward and cross the gainline in order to set a target as a means of bringing the big boys back into the game as soon as possible after the completion of a set piece (No thought there of actually playing to score, but never mind). My impression is there are plenty of people capable of performing this simple role. There again, the coaches may be searching for something a little different – players who can interchange at 10 and 12, or 12 and 13, as Will Greenwood and Mike Catt did in the glory days, to threaten the opposition in more sophisticated ways through a wider range of technical skill and tactical acumen while having the mental toughness to challenge themselves in the eye of the storm. If England are serious about playing a confrontational game based on pace and tempo, then a high standard of technique and real decision-making prowess are crucial.
No doubt much consideration is being given to where the unusually powerful Leicester midfielder Manu Tuilagi should play, if fit, for this will inevitably affect other selections. Will he be given a roving role between 12 and 13, or will the coaches go for a more settled and specific centre combination? Tuilagi is a dangerous runner but does he possess the distribution skills, not to mention the kicking dimension, that are, to my way of thinking, an essential part of the international-class No 12's make-up? Maybe England see Tuilagi as their version of the All Blacks' Ma'a Nonu. If this is the case, it is worth pointing out that the New Zealand coaches have encouraged Nonu to expand his repertoire over the last couple of seasons and have made him a much more effective team player as a result.
So it is that we wait with bated breath. To use a literary analogy, will we see what turns out to be the parody of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, or are the coaches seeking the utopia of H G Wells' Men Like Gods?
Diamond lights up super Sale
Even though they lost to Leicester in a thrilling encounter at Welford Road, I must award full marks to Steve Diamond and his Sale side for putting a few noses out of joint – not only last weekend, but throughout the season to date.
Steve's hugely energetic and outgoing style has been extremely effective and by asking him to take on the chief executive's role – alongside his many other duties – the club are showing they mean business in their attempt to rejuvenate the union game in the North-west.
There is an immense amount of rugby-playing talent in the South Lancashire corridor alone and it would be so heartening to see a genuine North-west side challenging for honours. Forgive me for being a little partisan, but it's my area of England and I care about it.
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