Stuart Lancaster has not yet experienced what might be called a “Nick Mallett moment”: the popular term for a selection cock-up of such epic proportions that a lifetime’s work in piecing together top-level rugby teams is rendered null and void in the space of a few gruesome minutes. Assuming he does not pick a flanker at scrum-half for this weekend’s Six Nations opener against France, or try to turn a tight-head troglodyte into a fleet-footed wing, or ask Chris Robshaw to do the goal-kicking as well as everything else, the England coach should leave Paris in a better place, reputationally speaking, than Mallett left Twickenham in 2009.
There are, however, some obvious hazards for Lancaster and his fellow think-tankers ahead of this latest cross-Channel mêlée. If Mallett’s sudden decision to cast a breakaway forward as dyed in the wool as Mauro Bergamasco as Italy’s makeshift answer to Gareth Edwards was the most blatant wrong call in recent rugby history – Martin Johnson’s attempt to make an international full-back of Ugo Monye later the same year was daft enough, but nowhere near as calamitous – injuries have left the England hierarchy with little choice but to take a significant gamble somewhere in Paris.
For a start, there is no specialist outside centre in the squad: the men fighting over the No 13 shirt appear to be Brad Barritt of Saracens, who feels far happier one place nearer the scrum, and the uncapped Luther Burrell of Northampton, who spends all his time playing inside centre for Northampton. Some aficionados think Burrell has the physical capacity to fill the substantial gap left by the comprehensively crocked Manu Tuilagi of Leicester; others believe he does not possess the footwork to cope in so exposed a position.
Then there is the left wing, which, as England wide men from David Trick to Charlie Sharples found to their cost, is as different to the right wing as different gets. Lancaster said yesterday that Mike Brown of Harlequins, his preferred option at full-back before Christmas, would not start this weekend’s game at No 11 in the absence of Marland Yarde and Ben Foden, although it was perfectly possible that he might finish it there. Therefore, the coach has three choices: he could play Jonny May on the basis that the Gloucester man spends most of his working life in the role; he could blood Jack Nowell of Exeter, albeit out of position; or he could ask Chris Ashton of Saracens, by far the most experienced of the three, to switch flanks.
Lancaster clearly thinks a good deal of the hard-working Nowell. “Exeter play a multi-phase game so he pops up all over the pitch,” the coach said of the 20-year-old newcomer. “The number of involvements he has in a game is higher than any other wing we have in the squad and as he comes from a full-back’s background, he’s also great in the air.” May, he went on, was blessed with “unbelievable pace”, while Ashton, close to being dropped more often than he would care to remember, had “gone back to Saracens and worked hard on the aspects of his game we identified in November”.
It will be a tough call – Nowell said just recently that he thought a switch from right wing to left might prove difficult, while Ashton’s recent travails at international level have been so considerable that a change of position could easily wreck his fragile confidence – and it will be made at least in part on the basis of the in-depth discussions Lancaster had with the contenders last week.
“I met every player one-to-one last Tuesday and, as there were 35 of them, it was a long day,” the coach said, confirming that this was his way of gauging who might be ready for a challenge on this scale and who might not. “I also speak to the rugby directors at the Premiership clubs far more often than people appreciate. All this information goes alongside what my gut instincts are telling me and what I’m seeing on the training field when it comes to nailing down selection.”
One decision unlikely to cost Lancaster much in the way of sleep is at lock, with Joe Launchbury of Wasps and Courtney Lawes of Northampton certain to face the Tricolores. The coach has waxed lyrical about Launchbury for much of the season; yesterday, he made his views known on Lawes, who has not always maximised his supreme athletic ability and innate ruthlessness in the Test arena.
“Giving Courtney the responsibility of running the line-out has been keen to his development,” Lancaster argued. “We asked him to do the job in Argentina last summer when some senior forwards were away with the Lions and he made a big step up. He has credibility in the group, he has presence on the field and the players respect him.”
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