Five reasons why an ailing red rose is flourishing again
From indispensable right-hand men to the basics of selecting on merit, there is plenty to be optimistic about
1 Three into one works better than the power of four
Seven years ago, when Sir Clive Woodward took the Lions to New Zealand armed with a long list of tradition-busting ideas, a God-awful ditty entitled "The Power of Four" was sung by the tourists as an anthem before matches. The Power of Three has a little more going for it, being a theory of rugby management as opposed to an assault on the musical ear. Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree came together as a caretaker coaching team in early January; now, in mid-March, they are the popular choices to take care of the England team right the way through to the home World Cup in 2015.
As an exercise in bright, bold, quick-thinking, communication-driven, load-sharing collaboration, the Six Nations campaign was as good as it gets, and although Lancaster did not say it in so many words on Saturday night, he would give his right arm to keep Farrell (the "presence") and Rowntree (the "credibility") alongside him, always assuming he is appointed head coach. Farrell's contract with Saracens may or may not be a problem. If it is, and proves insurmountable, the World Cup-winning New Zealand coach Wayne Smith is an obvious alternative. Given Smith's ability to zap up a team's attacking game, the RFU might offer him something anyway. That, though, would take us back into Power of Four territory.
2 If form is temporary, reputation is meaningless
Martin Johnson, the former England manager, must now realise that it is possible to prosper in tournament rugby by picking people who happen to be performing well now, rather than people who performed well when the chief selector was a player himself. At the World Cup, the England team featured Lewis Moody (a little past his best), Jonny Wilkinson (well past his best), Steve Thompson (way past his best), and Mike Tindall (miles beyond the pale, behaviourally and in every other way). The common thread? All four had played with Johnson on final night seven years previously. Conservative? This was England in deep freeze. By selecting uncapped or profoundly inexperienced individuals whose club form demanded closer inspection – Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell, Lee Dickson, Mouritz Botha, Geoff Parling, Chris Robshaw, Phil Dowson and Ben Morgan among others – Lancaster demonstrated that there is another, altogether fairer and more positive approach to team building.
3 RFU's coach development department has a point to it
In one sense, Lancaster was, and perhaps remains, a left-field candidate as full-time head coach. In another, he is – or should be – the obvious candidate. He was confident in his ability to piece together a competitive Six Nations side because he had worked his way through a system that had allowed him to work with the relevant players at age-group and second-tier Saxons levels. Jake White, the South African who won a world title in 2007 and was an early contender for the England role, was the product of a similar system in Springbok country. If you're going to spend money on this stuff, why not show some faith in it?
4 Brad Barritt is much more than a journeyman
When the Saracens centre started his first Six Nations, there was a widespread assumption that it would be his last. Fit, strong, a good tackler... yes, he was all of those things. A ruthless competitor? No doubt. But with Owen Farrell obviously a goalkicker of Test quality, he would surely be dropped when Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi returned. Wouldn't he? Er, no. Barritt confirmed Lancaster's view of the world by taking his club form into the Test arena and raising it several notches. One of the key England players over the last seven weeks, he may, when someone as gifted as Billy Twelvetrees eventually stakes his midfield claim, be the one who forces Tuilagi to play on the wing.
5 The sun – and the son – also rises
However grisly things may seem - and in the weeks before Christmas, the red-rose game was not so much in the gutter as in the sewer – it is never all bad for long. Andy Farrell's behind-the-scenes contribution as a feel-good figure, reinforced on the field by his progeny, were gifts from on high. If England fail to make the most of this largesse, more fool them.
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