A new broom…..
This week, England will cast aside the last vestiges of the Johnson era and hopefully select the backbone of a side to take us through to 2015 RWC.
There’s truly a frisson of excitement building amongst the press corps at Lancaster’s attitude to rugby- no nonsense, back to basics, value the shirts etc.
In some areas, the selection will be pretty easy- the front row picks itself; the halfbacks also, when all are fit. But elsewhere, the backrow, inside centre and second row will all inspire huge debate.
Lancaster has gone on record as saying he wants to play an expansive game. All very good to say that, but sadly, that style relies upon a linking 7, and that’s the one area England’s resources are very thin. For someone of my age, brought up on a series of absolutely world class opensides (Hill, Back, Winterbottom etc), it’s unthinkable that we have no-one to challenge the best of the world- the likes of Dusautoir, McCaw, Pocock, Brussouw and the wonderful Sam Warburton.
I believe he’ll go with a starting line up of Wood, Croft and perm one from Morgan and Robshaw. It’s a mix and match situation- play Morgan and you go in with an inexperienced 8 and no 7. Play Robshaw and you have two 6-and-a-halves and no 8. Croft can count himself lucky that his line-out is an integral part of England’s set piece, as his work around the park in recent games has been lacking in physicality. It’s makeshift to say the least, but I do think England will profit from the workrate of the Quins skipper and the robust work around the fringes of Saint Wood.
Elsewhere, with Manu Tuilagi injured, it’s a shoo-in that the Saracens club unit of Hodgson, Farrell and Barritt will form the spine of the midfield, although some may question if Hodgson’s style will be suited to a cold day in soggy Edinburgh. Trinder will bench and add pace to the outside channels when he comes on.
At lock, it’s a case of pick the best available. Tom Palmer, surely one of the most under-rated locks in world rugby, should partner one of Lawes or Attwood in the enforcers role, although Mauritz Botha, the big Saracen-cum-South African, will also press his claims. In the back three, it’s a case of Sharples or Quin’s Mike Brown, which will inform if Foden (also a candidate for the outside centre berth) starts on the wing or at full back. Ashton will of course resume his splashdowns on the other wing.
Looking at the above, England’s season will be defined not by results, but by ambition and the content within those results. The fans have an appetite to watch an attractive team ; if a few eggs are broken making a delicious omelette of pacey, expressive rugby, so be it. However, Murrayfield in February is a daunting prospect, and one hopes, in the desperation to play expansively when conditions perhaps dictate otherwise, Stuart Lancaster doesn’t end up with some of those eggs on his face.