Eddie Jones: Who I'd pick in my England starting XV
Calling the shots
Saturday 31 January 2009
There are plenty of reasons why England could use a good Six Nations Championship, but we can legitimately focus on just three of them: the heavy defeat at the hands of the Wallabies at Twickenham last November, followed by the record hiding from the Springboks, followed by the damaging reverse against the All Blacks. If Martin Johnson's team are really one of the world's powerhouse Test sides, they did a remarkable job of disguising it during the autumn. It can't go on like this. England need results, quickly.
How do they go about getting them? They can start by hitting the right notes in selection for the opening game against Italy a week today. They must settle on the variety of rugby they think will give them the best chance of winning the tournament and then pick players who bring the correct balance to the starting line-up. If that sounds too obvious for words, just think back to those fixtures before Christmas. Was there really much evidence of a clear, coordinated strategy? If there was, I missed it.
Let's start with the half-backs. In November, the first-choice pairing was Danny Care and Danny Cipriani. It didn't work. Care may well be the best England-qualified No 9 around, but he's a running half-back who, at international level, will always be most effective behind a dominant pack, with a highly organised, disciplined No 10 outside him. If Cipriani is to play, he'd be better off with a partner like Harry Ellis, for whom moving the ball is the first option.
I'd play a no-nonsense centre next to Cipriani – Mike Tindall fits the bill – and put someone with a little gas and fizz at outside centre. Delon Armitage? There are worse candidates. Armitage is different, what you need in the No 13 role if you're looking to make the most of your attacking opportunities in the wide channels.
Talking of which, I'll be interested to see what England do with their back three. I like to field contrasting wings: a hard runner, good in the heavy traffic, along with a real speedster. Mark Cueto can perform the first role, and if Paul Sackey is going to play for England as he did for Wasps against Leinster just recently, I'd definitely keep him in the team. And full-back? A lot of people are backing Olly Morgan of Gloucester, but the best back-three combinations have two strong kickers, and Morgan's kicking game is too short for Test rugby. I'd opt for Mathew Tait, who can fire the ball 50 metres as well as run rings round people.
Up front, I'd go for my best scrummaging front row – especially against the Italians, who probably have the best set piece in Europe. That means Andrew Sheridan, assuming he's in any sort of form, and Julian White at prop, with Lee Mears hooking.
Steve Borthwick, rightly retained as captain, is a hard-working line-out leader who makes 15 tackles a game. But who joins him at lock? Nick Kennedy of London Irish is a top-class jumper, but he offers precious little around the field. I'd take a punt on moving the athletic Tom Croft up from the back row. OK, he's probably on the light side, but he can bulk up over time. Which leaves us with the most difficult area of selection: the back row. Lewis Moody's latest injury hurts England – whatever Lewis does, he does it going forward – and I don't see a ready-made replacement on the open side. Michael Lipman will do a job, provided the coaches make it clear that he can't afford to play for England as he does for Bath, where he spends too much time off the ball.
Nick Easter would be my No 8, on the condition that he never kicks the ball again. (In fact, I'd tell him that if he even looks like he's considering a toe-poke, I'd ban him from rugby for a decade). With a big man like Easter forcing the opposition to tackle hard, James Haskell could have a free role on the blind side. He hasn't been in prime form, but he has a lot going for him when he finds a way into a game. England need to remove the shackles and let him go.
Eddie Jones is director of rugby at Saracens and you can see his side in Guinness Premiership action against Sale at Vicarage Road on Sunday 1 March, kick-off 3pm.
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