The outstanding Heineken Cup final in Cardiff at the weekend may not have provided great news for English rugby.
Northampton’s complete second half implosion underlined the impression they have been giving for the last two seasons: good, sometimes very good but against the very best opposition, not quite good enough.
Much the same has applied to the national team. Given England’s failure against Ireland in Dublin at the end of the 6 Nations and now Northampton’s demise in the Heineken final at the hands of Irish province Leinster, it is probably a wondrous turn of fate that England has been paired with Scotland in their World Cup group, not Ireland.
The latter would really have creased the furrows on Martin Johnson’s brow.
But if Northampton fell agonisingly short of the finishing line last weekend, one of their players more than emphasised his great quality, huge attacking threat and solidity, especially at the back and under the high ball.
For the outstanding Ben Foden to finish up on the losing side was cruel. It was Foden who had cut down Brian O’Driscoll when he burst clean through the Northampton defence in the first half. The full-back’s speed closed down the opening and flattened O’Driscoll in a trice.
Foden’s courage and spring-heeled jumps to catch the downfield ‘bombs’, was superb. On almost every occasion, he gathered cleanly and dealt highly efficiently with the threat.
Then in the second half, as Northampton desperately sought a way back from Leinster’s Tsunami-like rush of 27 points in just 25 minutes, Foden came roaring out of defence, beat his man with a classic step and outside break and released Chris Ashton down the right touchline.
Few full-backs in world rugby right now can match all Ben Foden’s talents. And yet, having said all that, I wonder whether England might not look at something highly radical for the World Cup.
Foden confirmed in Cardiff he has the skills and pace to move forward from full-back to outside centre. I especially like the way he can ‘hold’ a defender by a clever, straight step and then beat him convincingly with his speed off the mark and ability to sway outside a challenge.
Given that there is a terrible dearth of quality, fast, ball handling, running centres in England right now, the idea of pushing Foden forward is one that might merit consideration. At an innovative European club like Stade Toulouse, the notion of asking players to perform in a variety of positions and roles is long since established. For example, full-back Clement Poitrenaud has adjusted smoothly and successfully to the No. 13 role.
Stade Toulouse men are bewildered as to why national coach Marc Lievremont has excluded Poitrenaud from France’s preliminary squad of 30 players for the World Cup.
With the best will in the world, you have to say that neither Mike Tindall nor Shontayne Hape will scare anyone at the World Cup later this year. Tindall, now a veteran prone to injury, never was any sort of a passer of the ball. Hape is a good club player, little more.
England will take Leicester bad boy Manu Tuilagi to the World Cup squad. And his power in taking up the ball will be useful. But could it not be deployed at inside centre? With Foden outside him, there would be some real power, pace and penetration in the England midfield, something that has been lacking for a long time.
The downside? Well, full-back wouldn’t be too much of a problem. At his best, Delon Armitage is a fast, dangerous runner from the back. But the bigger difficulty is with Tuilagi at 12, for all his defence-breaking qualities, not to mention pugilistic talents.
Tuilagi is no real kicker of the ball, and with Toby Flood more of a running outside half, England would be pretty thin on the ground in terms of a true playmaker at 10 and/or 12. A No. 12 who can kick, especially if he is left-footed compared to a right-footed No. 10, offers great value in terms of strategy and variety.
It’s true, Hape is not great kicker either but Tindall is useful in that regard.
No-one should put the family silver on the idea coming to fruition. Just four months out from the World Cup, it would require a quantum leap in adventurism by Martin Johnson and his coaches to put together a Tuilagi/Foden midfield partnership.
But if, post World Cup, England wanted to experiment in their search for a thoroughly dynamic midfield pairing for the future, they could do a lot worse than study Tuilagi and Foden together.
With the likes of Flood at outside half to set up the back line plus the speedy Chris Ashton and Delon Armitage in the back three to capitalise on the opportunities, England would have a highly potent back line on their hands.
Alas, it certainly won’t happen for the World Cup. Safety will rule for that tournament as far as England is concerned.