Look to the future
Stuart Barnes says Martin Johnson must be flexible in his thinking and look beyond the Six Nations.
Last Updated: 11/01/10 12:26pm
This week is the most significant yet in the stuttering managerial career of Martin Johnson. With the arrival of 2010 we are no longer heading away from the last World Cup, we are turning the corner, onwards towards the next one.
This week Johnson names the Elite Performance Squad and we discover whether the manager has developed a longer term philosophy or whether he remains as distrustful of fancy thinking and keeps his head down, selecting simply for Six Nations success.
Under his tenure the team has yet to find any real rhythm. So profoundly afraid has he been of defeat that short-term negativity has held sway and breadth of vision has seen the blinkers applied. That has to change immediately if England are serious about being competitive in New Zealand.
Picking an experienced team to compete in the Six Nations and creating a squad with enough experience to live with the best requires some flexibility in thinking. Johnson's only idée fixe should be an absence of fixed ideas; thus far England have been held down by them.
The EPS should be selected on two levels; the best available men to create a winning culture as soon as possible, but there must also be a quality check. Will the men for today be good enough against South Africa or New Zealand next year? Unless the answer is affirmative only those with compelling reasons should be involved - even if their current case for inclusion is a strong one.
I find it hard to see Steve Borthwick captaining England to the next World Cup but maybe Johnson thinks his leadership is required to hold this formative side together.
However the flipside of that is that men like Courtney Lawes need, but are deprived of Test-match time (to adjust more to the mental demands than the rise in skill for the Six Nations is great only in terms of tradition). He and others such as Chris Ashton have to get the errors out of their system to ensure they know how to handle them when the heat comes on in 2011.
Clive Woodward's early immersion of Jonny Wilkinson was not a reflection of the young man's pre-eminence amongst his fly-half peers back in the time of the Tour from Hell, but an acknowledgement that one eye has to be on the future even as the other is on the immediate.
When Berrick Barnes was injured en route to Australia's recent tour, Robbie Deans did not opt for the next best professional performer in that position. In his mind no-one fitted the long-term bill so he called up a 20-year-old rookie instead. This is the sort of flexible thinking required from England.
Thus far it has not been an obvious strength but Johnson started with no experience at all. That itself is an indictment of the process by which the populist choice was made but what's done is done; it will be fascinating to see whether the management shows more signs of broad intelligence as selectors.
The final weekend of action before the announcement was limited to one match as only Leicester escaped the clutches of deep winter. The fact the game went on typified the Tigers; an immense collective effort from everyone at the club with a huge amount of grit involved. That is Leicester in a nutshell - although the quality of the performance against Wasps was more than gritty.
The forwards were magnificent as the backs came out of their winter hibernation to produce precision enough to mark Leicester as the team the rest of the Premiership has to beat.
On an individual level two men stood out. Dan Cole cemented his burgeoning reputation and with the state of front row injuries appears a certainty for selection to the Elite Squad. The other eye-catching performance came from Danny Cipriani. He made one daft decision to run a penalty when his team were leading 8-3 in the first half but other than that he delivered a classy cameo.
The quality of his passing, the threat from his pace and the length on his punting were somewhere near the levels achieved before injury. True, he has a mediocre level of form behind him but in the long-term gameplan he is the man who should be galvanising the England back line - if he rediscovers his fleeting early form that saw him mesmerise Ireland and point England in a fresh direction.
To recall him to the Test team after a cameo would be brave but to omit such a talent from the Elite Squad with the World Cup forthcoming would suggest an inability to recognise the talent that shines through the difficulties experienced between Cipriani and the national coaches.
Now is not the time for digging in heels, England have sore need of winged ones on the pitch, not stubborn men off it.
This will be a telling week in terms of England but it will (weather permitting) be rounded off with the Heineken Cup action where Clermont versus Ospreys stands tall over all other fixtures. If the Welsh region gets anything from this match you can start forgetting the failures of recent Heineken campaigns.
Clermont know a five points to nil win, as they managed at home to Leicester, leaves them in complete control of this gripping pool. The Ospreys have a mountain to climb in the Auvergne.Elsewhere Sale Sharks can keep their pool alive by beating a Cardiff Blues side that have disintegrated from last season. Another defeat against Edinburgh could put them under pressure to perform and make this into a thriller that will probably be played out in front of another small crowd. Where have the fanatical Welsh supporters gone? There is much more to rugby than international rugby boys, honestly!
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THE PERFECT 10?
Stuart, continuing the theme of international fly-halfs, who should Scotland go with? In the two Edinburgh v Glasgow games, Dan Parks ran the show, whilst Phil Godman underperformed. And do Scotland have any hope of improving on one win out of five in the Six Nations? Fraser Ross
STUART SAYS:Hope springs eternal Fraser, even in this winter wasteland. but it's hard to see Scotland making a major forward move until they sort out the barren situation at fly-half. Dan Parks has more control and a better kicking game, Phil Godman more invention but a lack of presence on the Test-match stage. If I had to select one it would be Parks but that hardly enables Scotland to develop an attacking game... neither is my answer to the first question, my question to Scottish rugby is what's happened to the raw potential of Ruaridh Jackson?
THE BIGGAR PICTURE
Hi Stuart - following your observations on the Irish fly-half situation I'd love to hear your observations on the Welsh number 10/12 spots. Would you 'blood' Dan Biggar in the 6N rather than Stephen Jones (in order to prepare him for the World Cup if Jones gets injured... or even to replace him if Biggar continues to improve)? Also what of James Hook? I feel we need him in our team as our backline was very uninspiring in the Autumn (and indeed at times in the last 6N) and does lack creativity with Gavin Henson missing and Jones at 10. Unfortunately barring a move to the Blues, Hook is unlikely to be utilised in at 10 in the near future (a shame); with this the case would you play Hook at 12, even if this means sacrificing Jamie Roberts? Matt Armstrong
STUART SAYS: Matt, Stephen Jones remains central to Welsh rugby but I would certainly not consign Biggar to the bench simply because of where Jones is NOW. Selection has to be on two fronts - IF the management are interested in a successful World Cup. If they are not I would stick with Jones and I would definitely play Hook at 12, where his frustrating absence of game management hurts a team less. Again I would mix the player involvement, using Jonathon Davies and Jamie Roberts rather than settling on a starting combination, full-stop.
CLOSE FOR COMFORT
Stuart, forgetting the current arguments over whether there is too much kicking - people usually qualify this by adding the adjective 'aimless' forgetting that there is also quite a lot of aimless passing and running as well - the current Guinness Premiership does have one huge asset... competitiveness. Last weekend's games had a grand total of 25 points difference between the sides over six games: a single three-pointer would have won the match for a different side in two games and a converted try in two others. In the this and two previous weeks there have only been three double-figure margins! This means that 14 of 17 games have been decided by seven points or fewer. I believe that you cannot underestimate the attraction these close games give to the supporters, as opposed to the enjoyment not felt by neutral experts looking for 'beauty' - and other ephemeral attractions! Dick Pearson, Newark
STUART SAYS: Dick, do you not think the closeness of these games is also a reflection of the mediocrity and the failure for sides to utilise attack?Look what happened when a Premiership team REALLY clicked. The Tigers smashed Wasps because there was some real quality of rugby on display. Beautiful rugby? I thought the scrum was a thing of beauty as well as the way Leicester finished 14-man Wasps off the first try. Close rugby is great and I adore the passion of fans but there's no reason why we can't have a better quality game on a more regular basis; shoot for the stars my friend!