A parallel universe
January 17, 2012
It could have been a very different looking squad had Martin Johnson scooped the 2011 World Cup © Getty Images
The scene is Twickenham on the first day of January 2012 in a parallel universe. Martin Johnson, the England manager, with Martyn Thomas, chairman, chief executive, chief financial officer, groundsman, seat polisher and programme seller of the RFU by his side, announces the team for the Six Nations match against Scotland the following month. Next to Johnson, the Webb Ellis Cup, the trophy won so bravely in New Zealand a couple of months previously, stands on a plinth, glinting in the arc lights of a hundred camera crews.
"Morning everyone," says Johnson. "Here is the team. At full-back, Delon Armitage - I think his clever positional kicking, perfect positioning under the high ball, reading of the play and above all spotless disciplinary record makes him the obvious choice. On the wings, Mark Cueto and Matt Banahan - the rapier and the bludgeon - I heard that on Sky Sports." There is appreciative laughter among the adoring audience.
"Our centres - Mike Tindall and Manu Tuilagi - the bludgeon and the, er.. Well anyway, Mr Dependable and England's new young Samoan star. What can I say about these guys? Solid in defence, unstoppable in attack. Sometimes.
"On to the half-backs. It's been a close call. Toby Flood did very well at the World Cup, setting up six tries in the last five minutes of the final against the All Blacks. But I think we all know that without Jonny Wilkinson's three penalties in the first 75 minutes, we would have been dead and buried. Wilko - " he looks to his left where Lord Wilkinson is sitting in an ermine cloak, waiting with undisguised relish for two hours' worth of press interviews - "I love you, man. I mean, guy.
"Scrum-half. No question. Danny Care has the pace and pass to worry any defence and I have been delighted with the way he put a plateauing of his development behind him last year and took his game to new heights. He deserves to get the nod over Richard Wigglesworth. Sorry Danny can't be here to speak to you, he's been delayed in traffic." Roars of laughter, now, in the room, at this in-joke.
"On into the pack: our eight hearts of oak (thank you the Daily Telegraph). Well, seven. I am struggling for a tighthead prop, but we'll come back to that.
"On the loosehead side, the remarkable Andy Sheridan is scrummaging these days with his head at right angles to his body but he is still the No.1 number one (thank you, The Independent) in the land. And where Sherry goes, Steve Thompson goes, ie: the hospital. But that's all right. Rugby's a short career. You play on as long as you can. Thommo, I salute you and we'll have the morphine handy in the dressing room.
"Now I know no one will ever forget Simon Shaw's contribution at the World Cup. Thanks to our lawyer Richard Smith we were able to argue that there was no IRB regulation prohibiting the use of a Zimmer frame on the pitch. So there was Shawsy, running, handling, passing, trundling - just like the old days. Of the early 1990s. He gets the nod this time over Louis Deacon, while the other second row is the superbly self controlled 'enforcer' - yes, I know I use that word to you guys a lot, but it does suit this guy - Courtney Lawes." The Northampton lock is outside, having an argument in a phone box, but the room - agog as always to Johnson's every word - does not notice.
"And the back row. World class is a term I use a lot, but I think it is appropriate for these guys. I think you'll agree we have the perfect mix of openside fetcher, No.8 fast-breaking from the base, blindside cuteness and facility with the Japanese language?" The room, while knowing none of this is true, nods in agreement. "So Lewis Moody, James Haskell and Nick Easter keep their places, with Hendre Fourie covering on the bench. No I don't really have a clue which one of them will be six or seven but it doesn't matter. We are England.
"Finally, to return to the thorny issue (thank you, The Sun) of the tighthead prop.
"Now I know it's a lot to ask but the guy I have selected has never let me down. This is a guy of such moral rectitude and selfless courage that he will, I am certain, do a fantastic job for us. This guy is the future of England Rugby front row play. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Danny Cipriani."
And as tumultuous applause rings out, Johnson leaves the stage, and a shimmering haze descends on Twickenham, clearing to leave the baffled media men, women and guys staring at Stuart Lancaster. But, but, where's Johnno? And where are all the players he's just been telling us about?
"They're all injured, retired or dropped," explains Lancaster, alternately smiling and looking at the ceiling. "But don't worry, guys. I've got a plan…"
So this is England - in the real world - two weeks or so before the 2012 Six Nations Championship. A whole team's worth of their most experienced players have departed the scene, or are missing injured for the start of the tournament. Anyone who used to bemoan a lack of experimentation by those wearing the red rose must be in clover, for it would be hard to conceive of a more callow squad or coaching staff in Lancaster, the interim head coach, and his assistants Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell.
The best scrum-half on form, Danny Care, is out of the squad as a disciplinary measure. A glance down the list of forwards, from Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole in the front row to the amazingly thin selection at No.8 does not show a pack obviously capable of dominating in the scrum. Lancaster has promised a fast-paced game even though Courtney Lawes looks likely to be absent at the outset and the line-out should be okay. But at the base of the scrum it is a choice between the uncapped Ben Morgan and shifting a flanker - Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood (who currently has a foot injury) or Tom Croft - into an unfamiliar position.
With Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi injured - their comeback date is uncertain - and Mike Tindall jettisoned an entirely revamped midfield looks likely, perhaps based on Saracens. The defensive frailty of Charlie Hodgson appears to have receded since he joined Sarries. But that is club rugby, where the former Sale man - undoubtedly a wonderful distributor and reader of the game - is part of a specific system he can practice every week of the season. England have a fortnight to get ready for Scotland.
It feels as if England, in the aftermath and adversity of a dire World Cup and much longer term questions over the type of player emerging from a Premiership with roughly a third foreign players, have flipped a coin high in the air at the outset of 2012. Seeing which way it lands in the first two Six Nations matches away to Scotland and Italy will be a fascinating a piece of sporting uncertainty to kick off this Olympic year. It could be the most immense flowering of a new team to follow for the next few years or the most desperate holding pattern while a few of the injured and untried find their feet.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Firdose Moonda talks to Rob Louw about the difficulties of being a South African touring New Zealand at the height of Apartheid
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games