Peter Bills: England's wasted season
Thursday 18 March 2010
The sense of desperation over England's team to face France in Paris on the final weekend of the 6 Nations Championship, underlines the mess in which English rugby finds itself.
A whole winter season has been wasted by England because they are no nearer finding the men they need to take them forward towards the World Cup next year. Only in this final match of the winter programme have England found the courage to start with two young players identified at the beginning of the season as possible future stars, Northampton full-back Ben Foden and his club colleague, wing Chris Ashton.
Until now, they have failed to win a place in the starting line-up due to England's poor selection decisions and conservative approach. Only now, in extremis after the torrent of criticism following the drab 15-15 draw with Scotland in Edinburgh, have Martin Johnson and his fellow coaches, acted.
It is a sad indictment of England's many failings that it has taken them seven internationals to summon up the courage to be bold in the selection process.
But England's team for the Stade de France, chosen as it clearly has been with a damage limitation exercise in mind, also reveals the poverty of options available in some positions. To have to recall 31 year-old Mike Tindall at outside centre speaks volumes for the lack of alternatives being groomed by the English clubs in the Guinness Premiership.
Tindall, a wonderfully courageous, committed performer, played for England in their 2003 World Cup triumph but for most of the last three years has been battling a series of injuries, some very severe. He is plainly well past his sell-by date yet gets another recall purely because the other alternatives are so poor.
England's problems begin with their captain, the worthy Steve Borthwick, who surely cannot hang onto the job after this weekend's match. A new leader, probably Wasps flanker Tom Rees, must be unearthed for the short summer tour and then next season.
Borthwick's presence denies England potentially their best second row pairing this weekend; Simon Shaw, the veteran, and Courtney Laws, the young thruster. It is only by trying a young player such as Laws in the cauldron of a place like Paris would selectors really learn about his suitability for the job and potential. But Laws cannot play because Borthwick gets in.
Sad as it is to say of such a decent and honourable man, the feeling throughout England rugby is that the Saracens man only wins another cap because he holds the captaincy and I cannot believe Borthwick is happy with that state of affairs.
England's selectorial process this winter has been as poor as their game. It has taken them a season to work out that Jonny Wilkinson is no longer the player he was and does not cut the mustard any longer at Test level. Anyone who watched him playing for his French club Toulon back in September and October, knew that but not, apparently, England's selectors.
Wilkinson has done for England what Toulon have asked him to do all season for them – stand back in the pocket, well out of the way of opposing flankers and half-backs and kick for position and territory. Oh, and kick copious numbers of penalty goals. That has been enough to give Toulon a successful season in the French Top 14 but it is nowhere near enough at international level these days. But then, England have been playing a brand of rugby from years gone by...........
As always, the acid test of how good any international side is, is to ask how many of its players would get into a World XV? In England's case, the answer is none, zilch. The talent simply isn't there but you have to say it has not been helped by some abject decisions made by the selectors.
Toby Flood should have started the season in the No. 10 jersey, not ended it. No-one still knows whether he is the real answer but at least if he had been given seven games, not Wilkinson who was plainly past his best, we would have learned something. Instead, England have wasted another season.
Up front, it is true that injuries and unavailability has hampered them. England's best front row is Andrew Sheridan, Dylan Hartley and Matt Stevens, yet the two props have missed the whole season; through injury in Sheridan's case and suspension, in the case of Stevens.
In the back row, Rees would be first choice open-side flanker if he were fit and Tom Croft of Leicester would have been the No. 6, had he been around. But there are real concerns at lock where surely not even the admirable Simon Shaw can go on much longer.
Danny Care has made progress this season yet I wonder if Leicester's Ben Youngs is not the technically better player for the long term. I would like to have seen him get a start in Paris. Why not, what have England got to lose? They must start finding out about players, not keep opting for the most conservative way. Only a crisis has finally given Foden and Ashton a place in the starting line-up and for Martin Johnson and his men to have kept picking Delon Armitage at full-back when he was clearly out of form, was ridiculous.
France should stroll to their Grand Slam against this muddle of an England side. The only chance of England limiting the damage is if the likes of Joe Worsley, Lewis Moody, Nick Easter, Toby Flood and Mike Tindall tackle themselves to a standstill. Presumably, that is why some of them have been included.
As ever with England, and especially with the World Cup due next year, it is a short term policy. The worry is their absence of long term thinking and stability in the side so close to a World Cup.
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