Jonny and Charlie – perfect harmony

By Jonathan Davies
Monday 09 December 2013 02:24
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It is difficult to look ahead to the new season and see anything but congestion and quarrels. The congestion will come from the conflicting priorities of clubs and countries in this pre-World Cup campaign, and the quarrels will surround the players caught up in the middle of it all.

It is going to be tough for the players, and compromise and common sense need to be the key words. Too many squabbles will ruin the appeal of the game to fans who just want to see good, exciting rugby.

If we can get the negatives out of our minds there is so much to look forward to, and there are many players whose development I'm longing to see. The two I think will dominate our attention in the new season are, it will not surprise you to hear, both outside-halves.

The first is Charlie Hodgson, who has already announced his arrival as a force and who in any other country but England would already be assured of an immediate step into the No 10 shirt. With the masterly Jonny Wilkinson already occupying that spot for England, this presents an immediate problem. England's strength in depth means that this is the sort of problem Clive Woodward is becoming accustomed to, but nowhere is the problem more acute than at outside-half, particularly as I'm convinced Hodgson will improve quickly.

I'm not saying he is a better player than Wilkinson, but he controls the game well, has great hands and takes the ball up to the defensive line with excellent vision. Even if he is short of Wilkinson's class at the moment he would be a tremendous asset to the England team.

If he hasn't done so already, Woodward must consider moving Wilkinson to inside-centre. It might seem sacrilege to shift a player of world standing, but if you examine all the implications it makes sense. Wilkinson has many facets to his ability, not least his left foot, and to have a left foot of that quality at inside-centre is a huge plus. His defensive strengths are outstanding and the way he can beat opponents makes him a threat wherever he is.

It so happens that centre is the one place where England are not blessed with up-and-coming players of immediate promise. For all the experience of Will Greenwood, Mike Catt and Mike Tindall, they could use a bit of extra guile in this department.

It would be a brave decision and Jonny might not care to make the transition, but a Wilkinson/Hodgson axis would terrify the opposition and could be awesome by the World Cup.

The other outside-half I expect to blossom is Iestyn Harris, whose low-key entry into the union ranks last season mystified just about everyone in the land – especially him. I'm supposed to know a little bit about transferring between codes and yet I can't offer any reason why he has struggled, but I can say that I still regard him as one of the most gifted rugby footballers of his generation and he will certainly prove that claim. Away from the pressures, he has had an excellent summer of preparation and his determination to succeed is as strong as ever.

A big boost for Iestyn is the appointment of David Young as the Cardiff coach. David has been to league and back and knows the problems of adjustment. He also has great respect for Iestyn's ability. Iestyn couldn't have better support, and I'm certain he will make up for lost time. What he needs, of course, is plenty of games. He needs as much match practice at the highest level as he can get. Someone like Scott Quinnell, on the other hand, needs a lot fewer matches. The physical nature of his game puts a strain on his body and he ought to regulate the intensity of the rugby he plays.

The point is that players have different requirements in order to peak at the right times, and the idea that international players should play a stipulated number of games for their clubs is nonsense. Players and coaches have to be honest with each other. There are times when players need to keep their momentum going and there are other occasions when they could do with a breather. It is a matter of individual choice and should not be governed by the imposition of limits.

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