Monday, 7 January 2008

Decision time for Yoda

In a couple of days time Brian Ashton will name his 32-man England training squad for the Six Nations and, after the criticism that he took from certain quarters post-World Cup, this might be an opportunity, perhaps, for him to stamp his authority on the selection and pick a squad not only to be competitive in the Six Nations but also to start playing the style of rugby that will take England forward during the next four year cycle towards the 2011 World Cup.

The big question is whether it is an opportunity that Ashton will take or will he, instead, take the Woodward/Robinson post-2003 approach of conservatively insisting that only the next game is important? Not that I have any objection to a coach planning to win his team's next game - it's what he's paid to do after all - but what does trouble me is the inevitable short-termism that creeps in to selection when a coach becomes a slave to this philosophy. "Stick to the tried and tested" becomes the mantra, even when the so-called tried and tested are perhaps past their best and out of form - for plenty of examples please refer to any England team between January 2004 and September 2007.

No, what I hope Ashton will do is select a squad of in-form players, no matter what experience they have, whilst also having one eye on developing talent for the next 2 or 3 seasons. What we can't have in 2011 is the situation Ashton faced before last year's World Cup i.e. having several positions where the only choice was between players well past their sell by date or with little to no international experience.

Readers of the Sunday Times will know that Welsh journo Stephen Jones (who for some bizarre reason seems obsessed with the England rugby team) continually espouses that the England team should largely be selected on the basis of size and age and, despite all evidence to the contrary, appears convinced that the side should be based around the dubious talents of Mike Tindall at inside centre.

Here's the team Jones would select to face Wales:

15 Josh Lewsey (London Wasps) 14 Paul Sackey (London Wasps) 13 Danny Hipkiss (Leicester) 12 Mike Tindall (Gloucester, capt) 11 Tom Varndell (Leicester) 10 Jonny Wilkinson (Newcastle) 9 Andy Gomarsall (Harlequins) 1 Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks) 2 Dylan Hartley (Northampton) 3 Matt Stevens (Bath) 4 Simon Shaw (London Wasps) 5 Ben Kay (Leicester) 6 James Haskell (London Wasps) 7 Magnus Lund (Sale Sharks) 8 Martin Corry (Leicester).

So, not only does Jones pick a hooker from National One who is currently struggling to hold down a place in the Northampton Saints' front row, he also sticks with an ageing pair of locks both of whom will be doing well to last another two seasons, an openside who has struggled for form for the best part of 12 months and a number 8 who currently isn't even the best 8 (or 6 for that matter) at his club. Perversely, Jones does bravely go for Paul Sackey and Tom Varndell on the wings, but fails to explain how, with a midfield consisting of Wilkinson, Tindall and Hipkiss, the ball would ever reach these two potent finishers.

In fact all four of the Sunday Times pundits (the other three being Stuart Barnes, Jeremy Guscott and Nick Cain) picked Tindall for their team so obviously I'm missing something here (although all but Jones had him wearing the 13 shirt which is something I could live with I guess if he were partnered with someone creative at inside centre). Guscott even had Tindall as captain - so my New Year predictions are bearing fruit a little sooner than I expected.

Back in September this was the team I selected ahead of time to play Wales:

1. Andrew Sheridan 2. Lee Mears 3. Phil Vickery 4. Simon Shaw 5. Steve Borthwick 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
Replacements: 16. Matt Stevens 17. Dylan Hartley 18. Tom Palmer 19. James Haskell 20. Andy Gommarsall 21. Shane Geraghty 22. Nick Abendanon

Current form suggests that Matt Stevens should replace Vickery in the front row, while both James Haskell and Leicester's Tom Croft are pushing for a starting berth at 6. Ellis is injured as is Shaun Perry, so Gommarsall is now the only realistic option at 9 whilst the form of Danny Cipriani suggests that Ashton needs to think the unthinkable and drop Saint Jonny.

All in all a credible 32 would be as follows:

Prop: Sheridan, Stevens, Vickery, Wood
Hooker: Mears, Chuter, Paice
Lock: Borthwick, Shaw, Palmer, Kennedy
Back row: Moody, Haskell, Croft, Rees, Easter, Crane
Scrum Half: Gommarsall, Richards, Wigglesworth
Fly half: Wilkinson, Cipriani
Centres: Flood, Geraghty, Hipkiss, Tindall
Wing: Sackey, Strettle, Varndell, Lewsey
Fullback: Tait, Abendanon.

Now that Ashton has the opportunity let's hope he makes the most of it.

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