The next step
November 22, 2011
Could Charlie Sharples get a call-up for the 2012 Six Nations? © Getty Images
Considering Martin Johnson's contract as England manager was left in the 'matters pending' file to be dealt with after the World Cup there was always a chance the Rugby Football Union would find themselves short of time to install his successor if one was needed. A better than even chance, I always felt, even when some had drawn the conclusion from Johnson's utterance of one single word "addictive" to describe the job a few months ago that he would be keen to carry on towards 2015. My gut feeling for most of this year was that he had recognised his limitations as England manager and that with a young family to worry about and no need financially or professionally - Johnson does not strike you obviously as a 'career coach' - to keep going it was no surprise to me he jacked the job in.
It may yet transpire that he was going to be sacked anyway, or that he has a job elsewhere to go to, or that he did simply look in the dressing-room mirror one day (perhaps at half-time after the most abject half hour or so I can remember from an England team, in the World Cup quarter-final against France) and recognised the inescapable truth.
Whatever the case, it was pretty soon in Auckland that in a desperate attempt by the RFU's outgoing acting chief executive Martyn Thomas to exercise the powers that were soon to be stripped away from him we had the idea of a temporary England coach floated to us. It got buried somewhat by the 'deadline' Thomas had given Johnson to resign or indicate his willingness to carry on; a deadline soon rubbed out although I retain an inkling that Thomas thought he was in safe ground having witnessed face to face Johnson's depressed demeanour after that France match.
Anyway, what matters is what England do next. When asked about this temporary coach idea, Thomas said that Ben Ryan (England's Sevens coach) was one of those capable of doing it if necessary. Certainly in the line-up touted this week by some newspapers - Stuart Lancaster, Graham Rowntree and Mike Ford - there's plenty of room for a backs/attack coach. Oddly, if Lancaster, the RFU's head of elite player development - though better known as head coach to the Saxons - had more kudos about him, there would be no need for debate about the head man. Lancaster could step in, nice and easily, appoint a backroom staff and get on with preparing for England's defence of the Six Nations Championship title.
That does not sound quite right, so unless a permanent alternative such as Northampton's Jim Mallinder jumps ship from their present position in quick order, it may be Lancaster in a caretaker capacity who has to name a re-jigged England senior squad of 32 at the start of January. This as far as I understand the elite player agreement (and neither it nor the club-country Long Form Agreement are public documents) will consist of making up to 10 changes on form (in a World Cup year; normally it is five) from the senior squad of last summer plus further replacements for any retired players such as Lewis Moody. So what can we expect if Lancaster is picking the team?
The backs should line up differently to the set-up of Brian Smith, who according to the rumour mill is now an ex-England attack coach. Smith attempted to give England what had worked with him for London Irish: a cerebral fly-half with a bunch of big, quick lads from 11 to 15. When one No.12 after another was either injured or deemed to be not up to scratch defensively, Smith and Johnson tried to persuade themselves and the rest of the world that Shontayne Hape was the answer. It will be interesting to see what happens to Hape in January because, in theory, if he is not suspended or injured on January 1 he should be in the squad. Or does his present ban count against him? It's probably in the EPS small print somewhere.
Lancaster's Saxons did not have much to beat in the Churchill Cup last summer when the England scrum featuring Matt Stevens was in good nick and forced a remarkable three penalty tries out of Tonga. I thought I identified a similarity between the Saxons' attacking pattern and that favoured by Gloucester, with Charlie Sharples used off his wing to make ground with his speed and sidestep. So you would expect Sharples to be promoted to the seniors in January and if England can make this style work - with a fast-breaking back row suitably integrated as support runners - we should see more of the likes of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi than we did at the World Cup. If it works it will be enjoyable to watch and I could see it being good enough behind a big pack to see off Scotland and Italy in the first two Six Nations matches, both away from home.
But there is a risk attached. There were plenty of Saxons tries in the Churchill Cup and their two matches earlier in the year but rather too many in the summer were salvaged rather than created, by balls picked up from bad passes, or by players scurrying round after a messed up move. Perhaps the better players in the senior squad will cut out those mistakes. They will need to because against better teams than Canada and Tonga the downside of operating a more broken field than England are used to will be the concession of a lot of points. Perhaps this new England will say - anathema to the Johnson orthodoxy - never mind: however many points you score, we'll score more. Try that for a popular Six Nations mantra!
Ben Youngs has written in his newspaper column recently that he didn't feel England played to the style to suit their backs at the World Cup. I can see his point but would also suggest that for whoever steps out at Murrayfield on February 4 2012 as England's new head coach the order of priority is as follows: (a) pick a style of play, (b) pick the players to play it and (c) pray to high heaven, they stay fit. Oh, we could also chuck in a (d) get on the right side of the directors and coaches at some clubs who behind the scenes are chirping in the players' ears about which side their bread's buttered on and that maybe England is not so important - but that is a subject for another day.
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