Peter Bills: England's No. 10 selection will be telling
Monday 07 December 2009
The decision England will make in the New Year as to who wears the No. 10 jersey in the 6 Nations, will inform their year.
And don't underestimate the importance of 2010 in a rugby sense. It represents the final period for adjustments to be made heading into the 2011 Rugby World Cup. By the time 2010 is over, every serious rugby nation will want almost all its personnel in place for the assault on the next World Cup. You can't seriously still be chopping and changing players and positions in the final months before the tournament begins.
Thus, England's beleaguered selectors and coaches are already now wrestling with one acute problem. Who would suit best the style of rugby England want to play this coming year and take to the World Cup? Will it continue to be Jonny Wilkinson or Leicester's Toby Flood, who missed the entire autumn international programme through injury? Or indeed a fit-again Daniel Cipriani, especially if he has by now understood the meaning of the word humble.
Flood, we might do well to recall, was the conductor-in-chief when England put France to the sword at Twickenham last March. Some may find it hard to believe now, after the poverty of England's performances this autumn against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand but England won that match 34-10, and played some sparkling rugby.
The bog into which their game descended this autumn cannot be attributed solely to Wilkinson. After all, against Argentina in particular, they struggled to win any ball worthy of the name for long spells.
But the trouble with Wilkinson is that he is being asked to play a terribly one-dimensional game by his French club, Toulon. Against Racing Metro 92 in Paris on Sunday night, Toulon revealed the utter poverty of their game: they just kick downfield, all run after it, try to turn over possession or force technical mistakes at the breakdown............from which Wilkinson kicks goals. He managed five at Stade Colombes on Sunday evening. In truth, Racing weren't a whole lot better. Of the 43 points scored (Racing won 28-15), 38 came from kicks. South African Frans Steyn scored the only try of the game.
For England this autumn, Wilkinson did something similar, standing deep behind the gain line and hammering the ball downfield. Now England's coaches would doubtless tell you that, in order to off-load to players at pace and, thereby, those with the best chance of breaking the defensive line, the outside half needs to be deeper to bring those outside him onto the ball.
The flaw in this argument, I believe, is two-fold. Firstly, it means that the side with the ball has to make 15 metres in some cases before it even reaches the gain line, never mind crossing it. And secondly, in a modern game where defences are as tight as a vice, it usually means sides drift sideways and get nowhere. I also think you must attack, hard, straight and early wih possession, to commit the fringe defence and restrict the wide covering tendencies of the opposition back row, before you spread the play.
Now there is no doubt that Toby Flood can play in a different way. He can stand flat, take the ball on the gain line and ask questions of defences. Furthermore, he appears to have some of the wit and invention required to open up a modern defence. For sure, he seems to have the cheek and confidence.
Whether the Leicester player has the overall class to dominate a Test match on a regular basis remains to be seen. He certainly isn't a Dan Carter yet but then, who is?
However, Flood or Cipriani may give England better options in the key decision making role. This assumes England can make up the intensity they badly require at the breakdown, as the All Blacks revealed at Twickenham last month. Without that, they might as well play Martin Johnson or John Wells at No. 10 because no-one there could do much without faster, re-cycled second phase possession. Much has been made of England's lack of quality going forward and, consequently, their attack coach Brian Smith has been excoriated.
But everything starts up front and if the forward coaches John Wells and Graham Rowntree cannot get their men to produce quicker ball from the breakdown, Smith's role becomes academic. You can't blame him for poor attack when the ball delivered is of such poor quality.
But if Wilkinson is to be omitted, which I suspect may need to happen, then another question arises. Who is going to kick the goals and who is reasonably reliable? Is it fair to ask Flood to do that as well? Or could someone else?
My belief is that if England were to miss two or three penalties which Wilkinson would have landed but score some tries thanks to Flood's better positioning and greater creativity, then that is a price worth paying. 2010 must be the year in which England take their game significantly forward and that means taking the ball forward with some purpose. Oh, and doing it with their hands, not their boots.
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