Andy Robinson and Jonny Wilkinson for Sir Clive Woodward and Martin Johnson is about as good as England could have hoped for. The new coach and captain are following the most successful double act in Red Rose history, but as understudies they have attended enough rehearsals to be fluent in their respective roles.
So far, both have been talking a good game, although we won't know until the autumn internationals whether England are engaged in partial re-building or a root-and-branch operation involving wholesale changes to the squad as well as a fresh philosophy.
"I come from a background where everything is about winning,'' Robinson said. "I'm looking forward to enjoying the job. I wouldn't be there if I didn't have that absolute belief in myself, and I want to enthuse the coaching team and the players. We have to do something different after losing five of the last six games. Maybe we become a bit narrow in our focus and need to widen the way we approach games, put a bit of excitement into the way we perform. Over the summer there was some fear of losing, and we need to take some of these shackles off in terms of burden of expectation.
"The side that won the World Cup was at the end of a six-year process. I believe we have the ability to win the next World Cup, but the thing for me is the challenge of the next three internationals.'' It will be a big surprise if Robinson, named as Woodward's successor for the matches against Canada, South Africa and Australia at Twickenham in November, is not given a contract to do the job on a long-term basis, and the sooner he is officially anointed the better. He deserves the chance, although the timing of his succession could be better.
When Woodward talked rugby over breakfast at Penny-hill Park, the players who were asked to pass the toast were Johnson, Wilkinson and Lawrence Dallaglio. Robinson is already missing a huge input. England have not been as physically intimidating since Johnson's retirement, which makes Dallaglio's decision to follow suit even more damaging. There have also been farewells for Kyran Bracken, Paul Grayson, Jason Leonard, Neil Back and Dorian West.
Under the circumstances, Robinson's ringing endorsement of Wilkinson as the natural choice to lead his country is perfectly understandable, although Professor Gareth Rees, a reader from York, is a little sick and tired of our praise for the occupant of No 10.
"Wilkinson is a good player and an excellent kicker - no more, no less,'' writes Professor Rees. "To claim he is better than Charlie Hodgson is pure nonsense. Wilkinson had a poor World Cup, punctuated by a good performance against France and a drop goal against Australia. Against Wales, his and England's bacon was saved by Mike Catt.''
Robinson has already come through one test in a manner that was almost Woodward-esque. When Matt Dawson asked for time off from training to fulfil a television commitment, he received a sharp reminder that he had got his priorities wrong. Would Dawson have tried that on had Woodward still been in charge? Probably not. With the club-versus-country debate still a hot topic, thanks to Woodward's disingenuous criticism of the availability of players for Red Rose sessions, Robinson could hardly allow Dawson, or anybody else, to bunk off gatherings that are regarded as precious.
The only problem is that England might very well need Dawson, not only as a world- class scrum-half but as a senior lieutenant decorated in major campaigns. Wilkinson should surround himself with such men, particularly as other senior professionals are either injured or so lacking in form as to be anonymous.
England's back row of Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Back was the best in the business. Dallaglio and Back have retired, Hill is out for a minimum of six months with a knee injury. That leaves Joe Worsley, Martin Corry, Chris Jones, Lewis Moody and James Forrester. Moody is only just returning from a long absence through injury. At his best he is a huge asset, and Robinson can hardly wait to get him back.
In the second row, Simon Shaw is hors de combat and Ben Kay has had to overcome a loss of form and the death of his father. Again, Robinson will want a World Cup winner on duty, although he has options at lock with Steve Borthwick, Danny Grewcock and Alex Brown. In the front row, Phil Vickery is recovering from an operation, but the good news is that Julian White has been scrummaging all-comers into knots with the resurgent Leicester outfit.
England are not short of quality forwards, and it is inconceivable that they will field a pack that does not, at the very least, win a fair share of possession. What they do with it is another matter. Joe Lydon has been quietly working his way through the ranks, joining the RFU from rugby league, and it will be as interesting to see what he can produce from the England back-line as its composition. Will Greenwood and Ben Cohen, both prolific try-scorers under the Woodward regime, are not performing - they may need international rugby to raise their game - while Josh Lewsey is another on the injured list. Mike Catt is out of the picture and, with Wilkinson wearing 10, can a place be found for either Hodgson or Olly Barkley? At least Jason Robinson, the captain of an impressive Saleteam, is doing everything expected of him. It was, of course, Woodward who converted Robinson from league into one of the most dangerous runners union has seen.
In Bagshot last week Robinson, Andy that is, and Wilkinson set about reassuring their audience that the Red Rose garden had not been turned into a wasteland. "I see England as a side thoroughly prepared, hugely committed and determined not to waste asingle opportunity,'' Wilkinson said. "I want to be part of a side with never- ending desireand ambition. I can demand anything of these players and expect to get it. It's the way it works and I treasure it. When Andy offered me the job there was never any real doubt in my mindas to my decision.''
Nor was there in Robinson's choice of captain. "One name kept leaping out at me,'' the coach said. "I looked through all the toughest competitors and this guy is the toughest of the lot.''
England can afford to experiment against Canada, although Robinson is likely to resist the temptation.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE SYDNEY 22?
Sidelined with a hand injury, back soon
In flying form as captain of impressive Sale
Beginning to find his form again at Bath
Out of touch with struggling Harlequins
Lost form, and even dropped at club level
Back after injury, handful of games under belt
Preferred TV role to training, and dropped
Has recently returned from a back injury
Lost form at Northampton
Just emerging from a long injury
Remains a club colossus, retired from Tests
Beginning to emerge from slump
Injured knee, out for six months at least
Retired from Test arena, has club form
In a similar situation to Dallaglio
Unspectacular start at his new club
Makes seasonal debut for Leeds today
Inching back from long injury lay-off
Retired from international duty
Supreme club form, available for selection
England's autumn schedule
13 Nov: Canada (Twickenham)
20 Nov: South Africa (Twickenham)
27 Nov: Australia (Twickenham)Reuse content