England may rue lack of experience
June 22, 2011
Does England manager Martin Johnson lack the world class talent needed to claim the sport's biggest prize? © Getty Images
It is back to work week for England's elite World Cup squad and the journeymen professionals of London Welsh looking for promotion from the Championship to join the elite clubs in the Premiership. The two groups assembled only a few miles apart on Monday morning in very different surroundings.
England moved into the super luxurious, 5-star Pennyhill Park Hotel where every suite (they don't really do mere rooms) is unique and everything, including a specially built training pitch, the national coach could wish for is on tap. Dietary requirements will have been planned weeks in advance, medical facilities organised to a precise spec. This was one of Clive Woodward's first initiatives - no surprise there, he only does first class and he usually gets what he wants.
Meanwhile, the Exiles met at Old Deer Park, a ground with a great history but very few facilities and badly in need of a lick of paint. The offices are in the old hockey pavilion, the gym is a portacabin, the physio room's a shed and at this time of year they have to fit use of the pitches around the needs of the cricketers and archers.
Surprisingly, though, the atmosphere at both venues might have been surprisingly similar. At a Championship club there is always going to be a lot of new blood at the start of the season. Some players have moved on to better things, some to worse, and there have been a few retirements so there are plenty of new faces and very much a start of term feel with everybody treading carefully and working out the pecking order.
Normally, you would not expect that at an England pre-World Cup training camp. In 2003, for example, it would have been something of a reunion. A very established group of players who knew each other well was getting back together having celebrated winning a Grand Slam three months earlier. The talk would have been of families and holidays; this time round a few could even be introducing themselves to each other.
That is how far England are away from the class of 2003. Martin Johnson and his team still have a huge amount of work to do and, suddenly, September seems just around the corner. Selection is the most important job for a national coach and Johnson still has to reduce his squad from 45 to 30. In 2003 you could have inked in 28 immediately - not so this time. All the signs indicate that he is still unsure in a host of positions.
Nobody doubts the commitment of the foreign born players he has introduced or their right to play for England under the residential qualification rules but national pride is part of the equation and too many players who cannot possibly feel that can undoubtedly upset the balance.
Wales discovered exactly that in the late 90s when Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson were introduced to bolster the strength of the squad. It was a slightly different situation in that their claims of Welsh ancestry were highly suspect in any case (something that could not now happen) but there is no question that it caused resentment and undermined morale.
We are not talking about the likes of Simon Shaw who is as English as you could wish even though he was born in Nairobi but I would argue Thomas Waldrom is definitely flying a flag of convenience and the same could apply to a few others as well. Luke Narraway's careful Tweet, '#notbittermuch' could be the tip of an iceberg.
Getting that balance right just adds to Johnson's problems because he must realise he is way behind all the other major contenders except perhaps France who look equally 'under-done.'
It is the lack of senior world-class players that is really worrying. As far as I can see there is not one and that has real implications when it comes to leadership. Again it is difficult to resist the temptation to make comparisons with 2003. Johnson was at the height of his leadership powers but he also had Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back to lean on in the forwards.
Matt Dawson might not have been everybody's favourite but he was hugely experienced. He knew exactly what he wanted and had the confidence to rule his pack with a rod of iron. Outside him was Jonny Wilkinson, again at the height of his powers. You could argue England were short of decision makers in the backs but the pattern of play was so effective it did not matter.
Look at the current starting XV and there is an alarming dearth of senior world-class players. The most talented - Ben Foden, Ben Youngs, Tom Croft, Chris Ashton and Courtney Lawes - are all still very inexperienced and most of the others are either still trying to secure their places or over the hill.
England are still undecided in the key mid-field area which is really worrying and Johnson's dithering as a selector in his early days in charge has left him needing to gamble - not ideal with the World Cup just over two months away.
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