The selections made for the England rugby squad by Stuart Lancaster’s interim coaching staff betray their intent in terms of how they hope the team will play. Whether they can match intent with ability is their next obstacle, and therein England may find that their ‘new era’ is still plagued by some very old – as well as some new – problems.
The attributes of the selected players give a very clear impression of the kind of rugby England will strive to display in the Six Nations. Perhaps most strikingly, Lancaster is trying to build a hard-running, athletic, mobile pack of forwards with good handling skills. The inclusion of the likes of uncapped Callum Clark, Joe Marler and Ben Morgan, along with the more experienced Tom Croft, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes, demonstrates the coaches’ desire for a group of forwards, all of whom are quite comfortable roaming the full breadth of the pitch – be it carrying, offloading, tackling or rucking.
It is also evident that Lancaster and his coaches want two ball-players in their England midfield. The inclusion of Charlie Hodgson, Owen Farrell and Toby Flood (and Alex Goode, deputising for injured Flood) signifies that one centre, as well as the fly half, will be primarily a passer of the ball, rather than a carrier. This will be in stark contrast to the model previous manager Martin Johnson adhered to for so long: two centres designed to simply batter the opposition defence into submission.
The game-plan, then, is relatively clear. Quick forwards beat their opposite men to each ruck, supply England with fast recycled ball, from which their two ball-players thrive. One centre, as well as these athletic forwards, carry the team through a number of phases until a gap opens up in a tired and confused opposition defence. The electric finishers then arrive, – the likes of Charlie Sharples, Ben Foden, Mike Brown, all in fine form – finish the well-worked try and the Red Rose of England is happily on track for glory once more. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, actually, quite a lot. Notably, England lack a truly eye-catching number sevem. The players selected in the back row are among the most talented in the country, many of whom have played at seven for their clubs, but, crucially, none of the flankers in the squad are what rugby pundits call ‘out-and-out open-sides’. The over-used phrase refers to the type of player who flirts with legality in the ruck, getting away with whatever he can in order to prevent the opposition winning the contest easily, and perhaps more crucially winning the ball for his own team. Many players in the English Premiership do this quite well, yet none do it to a world-class level. Open-side flankers are all too often the architect of victory in rugby and if England cannot find an effective and legal way of securing the ruck, their good intentions might never materialise.
Additionally, the clarity of England’s game-plan is shrouded in the midfield. If England, as suspected, desire a duo of passing maestros and one centre more heavily built for ball-carrying and defence, how do injuries to Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi affect their intent? What if Owen Farrell gets injured? Brad Barritt and Jordan Turner-Hall are admirable carriers and tacklers for their clubs at inside-centre; should either be trusted in an international outside-centre jersey? Successful midfields are carefully balanced and if Lancaster begins to put his players into positions they do not regularly play for their clubs, the national side might find its attack blunted and its defence porous.
What concerned me most when I perused the squad was that an area of traditional strength for England suddenly seems more vulnerable: the scrummage. The likes of Steve Thompson, Andrew Sheridan, Louis Deacon, tight-five forwards known for their strength in the set-piece are all unavailable for various reasons. There is no doubt that the players who replace them bring youth, pace, and skill (Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley, Dave Attwood are among the names that spring to mind), but in scrums where brute strength and experience tend to win the day, England’s new forwards might struggle.
Make no mistake there is much that is good about this squad. Their finishers are among the best in the Northern hemisphere: Chris Ashton and Ben Foden are the two high-profile scorers included, yet Charlie Sharples and Mike Brown are in scintillating form this season and even the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs have proved themselves prolific try-scorers. I expect England’s lineout to provide plenty of possession with Croft, Wood and Palmer to the fore, and more generally the team will benefit from greater mental freedom than it had under the previous regime, in the knowledge that their coaches are (probably) not permanent and the team will not be judged too harshly for losses if they perform well.
The big question that underpins this article is whether England will achieve what they believe they can. If they find an effective way of contesting breakdowns, strike a good balance in midfield and hold their own in the scrum, I expect England to do well. If they fail to address these issues, they will finish the Six Nations in the bottom half of the table. Either way, they will be utterly compelling to watch over their next five games.