Transferring that winning feeling
December 20, 2011
Mike Brown has shone for Harlequins this season © Getty Images
Harlequins' stunning and well deserved win away to Toulouse in the Heineken Cup last weekend has had pundits pencilling in several of the multi-coloured ones' Englishmen for Six Nations Championship duty when the next England squad is named on January 11.
I indulged in the same soothsaying a couple of weeks ago after watching Quins win away to Wasps in the Aviva Premiership, suggesting in my newspaper report that Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown, Joe Marler and Danny Care (the scrum-half who was injured for the World Cup) had given themselves a good chance of a call-up from the interim head coach Stuart Lancaster. Those four names have been joined in other reviews by second row George Robson, hooker Joe Gray and Nick Easter, the No.8 who was the only Harlequin playing for England at the World Cup. The injured centres Jordan Turner-Hall and George Lowe have a bit about them too, while their stand-ins Matt Hopper and Tom Casson have shown classy touches.
Hopper in particular has adjusted brilliantly since his summer transfer from Cornish Pirates in the Championship. Each of the two out-the-back passes he made home and away against Toulouse were remarkable in its daring conception and precise execution. The second in the build-up to Gray's try last Sunday really was a thrilling sight to see from an English centre on the same day as poor old Mike Tindall was being listed in a Sunday newspaper not a million miles from the one I write for as one of the UK's 10 "Plonkers of the Year"!
For Quins to go from having one (Easter) to, say, half a dozen members of the England squad would be quite a feat as Lancaster and his temporary cohort of coaches, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree, embark on a new, four-year World Cup cycle. Clearly it is based in part on the club's storming run to the top of the Premiership this season, though it has not happened overnight. The English players have come through a system established by Mark Evans, Dean Richards, Collin Osbourne, John Kingston and others, and embellished in more recent years by the current coaches Conor O'Shea, Kingston, Tony Diprose and Mark Mapletoft.
Watch Quins' forwards and set plays closely and they look particularly well drilled by Kingston with some cute ploys to get players across the gainline, plus a ferocious and hard-bitten team ethic in defence. What O'Shea, Mapletoft and Diprose appear to have added is a more liberal attitude that you can identify in pieces of play such as Hoppers' passes and the willingness of Brown and the wings Seb Stegmann, Sam Smith and Tom Williams to take the outside if it is offered to them.
Those back three players are all English, too, so while it would be grievously amiss to ignore the influence of the All Black fly-half Nick Evans in a lot of what Quins do, plus the form this season of their Samoan tighthead prop James Johnston, the potential knock-on effect if they suddenly flood the England squad looks eminently positive.
Of course, in between the aforementioned wins at Wasps and Toulouse there was a home defeat by France's four-times European champions that showed the Harlequins in a less flattering light. But even that setback can be viewed positively, as they turned around in a week and showed some lessons had been learnt. They worked out a way of keeping Thierry Dusautoir in check, for one, which is something very few teams have managed in the past couple of years.
It does not feel like a knee-jerk reaction - or viewing life through multi-coloured, Quins-quartered spectacles - to speculate that an England team reshaped around the men from the Stoop would start the Six Nations with a bang in Scotland. Remember the win that Wales gained at Twickenham in 2008 when they started with 13 Ospreys? The easy advantages of teamwork and set-piece familiarity are obvious.
Unfortunately to pursue such an overtly club-based team with England you would want them to be coached by their club coaches and there has already been enough aggravation about Farrell being seconded from Saracens - with rival clubs moaning he may get the inside track on possible Sarries signings such as Chris Ashton - to imagine any more loans of the likes of Diprose and Mapletoft to the national side.
There are also the cold realities that international rugby is a different beast to club matches and that the idea is simply too radical for England to try, as it would mean ditching players such Tom Wood, Ben Foden and Ben Youngs who have been developed as the standard-bearers leading up to 2015. What will probably happen is that Lancaster will dip his selectorial quill into the Quins inkwell and pen four or five names into his 22, hoping that the club spirit will be dissipated to England through the efforts of those individuals.
It is probably the wrong way to tap into Harlequins' impressive form but it is the way almost all international teams tend to be selected and it would take a fantastically brash decision by Lancaster to change from that course. The good news for the new boss is he will be able to sample a perfect litmus test of Quins' credentials when they meet the formidable defensive unit of Saracens at Twickenham next Tuesday. It may turn a few England 'probables' into 'possibles' or perhaps 'not at alls.'
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