Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Whither England?

So, the England rugby team continues to take us on its roller coaster ride - from the depths of the Rugby World Cup pool stages to the highs of the team's march to the Final and back down again to the public lambasting of the head coach by experienced players who should know better.

Life is rarely dull as an England rugby fan (although there are many from other countries who insist that merely watching the England team is dull enough) but it would be a refreshing change if, now that the World Cup campaign is behind us, we could look forward to the 2008 Six Nations campaign and beyond with a degree of confidence and stability.

Alas, the latter quality, stability, is likely to be in short supply as Rob Andrew sifts through the carnage that is the official RFU review into England's experiences at the World Cup. It's possible that, given the backlash against the recent player revelations in the press, the powers that be will now rally around Brian Ashton although it is rumoured that his role is likely to change, with Andrew himself possibly taking on a "manager" role. This might work, as long as Ashton retains overall control, but to diminish his role would be a huge mistake and I suspect that what the RFU will come up with will be the usual fudge.

No, the key to achieving stability over the next few years is to be clear and decisive now. Appoint someone (Brian Ashton, Jake White, whoever) as Head Coach and give him full responsibility and more importantly full support, including the power to choose who his coaching staff should be and who his backroom support staff should be - and if this includes a visual awareness expert or a full time pastry chef then so be it. The debilitating club v country row appears to have now run its course and the parties are on the verge of agreement - get this signed, sealed and delivered and let the man in charge get on with it.

If the RFU get this right (and admittedly it's a big 'IF') then there's no reason why England fans cannot look forward with a degree of confidence. What the last two months have shown is that, however they did it, England have rediscovered their "mojo" (as Didier Drogba might say) and now also have a group of younger players coming through who, if handled correctly, could establish themselves as serious international players.

Whoever is in charge will need to approach the 2008 Six Nations with one eye on continuing the progress and building on the momentum achieved in France, and the other on freshening up the squad with 2011 in mind.

In the front row the main dilemma will be whether to retain the services of Phil Vickery. Vickery is 31 - certainly young enough to play international rugby today but I'd be surprised if he made the 2011 squad, especially given his injury record. My instinct would be to keep him on (but not as captain) in the short term to help bring Matt Stevens' game on and to help develop a younger tight head to step up to the squad in a couple of years. At hooker Ronnie Regan's time is probably now up - a great character but it's time for a younger model. George Chuter, too, is unlikely to make the next World Cup and there's a case for bringing the likes of Dylan Hartley, Matt Cairns or David Paice (or even Steve Thompson if he gets his form and fitness back with Brive) into the squad.

At lock our first choice pairing in France were aged 33 and 34, so it's fair to suggest that neither Ben Kay nor Simon Shaw will be in New Zealand in 4 years' time. For the Six Nations I'd suggest pairing Shaw with Steve Borthwick who could well be the senior lock (and possible captain) in 2011. Shaw probably only has a season or so left in him at the top level but he's the best around and the likes of Deacon and Palmer, both already with international experience, plus youngsters like Blaze and Ryder, have something to aspire to.

The World Cup back row of Corry, Easter and Moody played well enough although even they will recognise that they are hardly the most dynamic trio in world rugby. Corry's time, sadly, has run its course - Moody or Worsley (both of whom will just about be young enough in 2011) could fill the blindside role next year although they will be under pressure from the younger and more dynamic Tom Croft or James Haskell. Nick Easter should hang on to the number 8 shirt for the time being (with Haskell, Dan Ward-Smith and Jordan Crane all challenging) while Tom Rees (I hope) will be front runner for the openside berth ahead of Magnus Lund and, perhaps, Dave Seymour. One person who I sincerely trust will not be featuring in an England backrow again is a certain Mr. Dallaglio, for obvious reasons.

At scrum half Harry Ellis will come back into the reckoning, probably at the expense of Shaun Perry, and you'd hope that Quins' Danny Care and Sale's Ben Foden will progress between now and 2011. At fly half I can't really see beyond Jonny Wilkinson if his body will allow him four more years - although the likes of Olly Barkley, Toby Flood, Shane Geraghty and Ryan Lamb could all step up if required. Barkley, Flood and Geraghty are also contenders for the 12 shirt now that Mike Catt has retired and now that the Andy Farrell experiment will surely be abandoned.

At outside centre the World Cup cameo performances by Dan Hipkiss suggest that he could make the 13 shirt his own for years to come, assuming of course that Matt Tait moves to fullback as has been suggested. I've a feeling that Tait could also grow into an inside centre role so, unlike in the last few years, there's unlikely to be a shortage of midfield options especially when you consider the rapidly maturing talents of young guns such as Anthony Allen, Danny Cipriani, Dominic Waldouck and Jordan Turner-Hall.

With Jason Robinson now retired and Josh Lewsey unlikely to be around in 2011, changes to the back three are inevitable. Tait is being considered as a fullback, and he looks a natural I must say, while Nick Abendanon, Delon Armitage and Danny Cipriani will also challenge for the 15 shirt. On the wings a fit David Strettle must come back into contention alongside Paul Sackey and Mark Cueto, whilst the merits of Tom Varndell, Topsy Ojo and even Lesley Vainakolo (!) cannot be ignored.

All in all, provided that the players are properly managed both at club and international level, the next England Head Coach will have a rich seam of experience and talent at his disposal as the 2008 Six Nations approaches. Assuming that all are fit and in form, here's an England 22 I wouldn't mind see face Wales in the opening match in February:

1. Andrew Sheridan
2. Lee Mears
3. Phil Vickery
4. Simon Shaw
5. Steve Borthwick - captain
6. Lewis Moody
7. Tom Rees
8. Nick Easter
9. Harry Ellis
10. Jonny Wilkinson
11. David Strettle
12. Toby Flood
13. Dan Hipkiss
14. Paul Sackey
15. Matt Tait

16. Matt Stevens
17. Dylan Hartley
18. Tom Palmer
19. James Haskell
20. Andy Gommarsall
21. Shane Geraghty
22. Nick Abendanon

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