England suffer selection headache
December 29, 2008
England manager Martin Johnson gets to tinker with his elite squad next month but what changes will he make? © Getty Images
Nick Abendanon Delon Armitage Danny Cipriani David Flatman Toby Flood Martin Johnson Jonny Wilkinson
During the November Tests this column speculated whether Martin Johnson's understandable policy of fielding a settled England team would work for or against Danny Cipriani, who appeared to be struggling for full fitness after returning from his long-term ankle injury.
As it turned out Cipriani was dropped for the final match against the All Blacks and his confidence, according to those who have seen him for Wasps since then, has dipped. Though it's wrong to concentrate too much on one man or one position, the role of fly-half is so important to the way England play that you cannot help coming back to it.
So when Jonny Wilkinson announced that he would be fit from his latest injury in February or March it seemed useful to examine Johnson's options at No.10 - and then I ran into the brick wall of England's elite player agreement between the RFU and Premier Rugby. This has proved to be a bit of a mystery to players, fans and pundits alike since it came into force on July 1.
It came with a mission statement: "The objective over the next eight years is to make England the number one team in the world and the Guinness Premiership the number one domestic club competition in the world." Which sounded simple, but the rules of selecting players were anything but.
Bath's Nick Abendanon and David Flatman were outside the 32-man senior squad when it was named in July. They admitted publicly that they felt aggrieved and baffled that they could not play for England in the autumn unless another player in their position got injured or suspended, or was dropped because he had not been playing for his club, or had been playing for his club in a position other than the one(s) nominated by England.
The RFU and PRL added to the mystery by refusing to confirm each player's nominated position(s) or the number of club matches (it was reportedly three) which qualified as not playing or playing out of position. Some reports suggested Cipriani was nominated as a fullback, centre and fly-half. Others that he was only a 15 or a 10.
The critics bemoaned that the whole thing obliged Johnson to take a punt on his 32 in mid-summer for matches to be played in late autumn, and retain most of them for the Six Nations in the spring (he can make up to five changes between November and the Six Nations and will announce them in mid-January).
Now you could argue that Johnson would never be that daft and that, in the real world of real rugby, it is pretty unlikely that all 32 original players would remain free of injury and get selected consistently by their clubs in their nominated positions. To look at it another way, if all 32 original selections were fit and playing well for their clubs then that would be a pretty healthy situation.
Still, it was uncomfortable and near enough unjustifiable that a bolter like Abendanon who had a storming start to the season would have to cross his fingers for something to go wrong with someone else. It is plainly wrong and very bad news for Johnson if players are demotivated to play for England. It would be useful to know whether Abendanon upped his game to prove a point, or was left feeling short-changed by the national set-up.
If he is angry with the powers-that-be, he ought to include Bath, because the whole arrangement is only a part of the complicated eight-year agreement aimed optimistically at settling the tedious arguments between club and country.
As for Flatman, he was not even in the Saxons squad, which is the only group from which Johnson is allowed to promote a player. It led the Bath prop to observe that there was no point England's coaches watching him in the autumn. When cover was needed for Andrew Sheridan in November it was Gloucester's Nick Wood who was called up from the Saxons. Had Wood been playing better than Flatman up to then?
You had to be very attentive (or anally retentive?) to follow who was called up, and why, before and during the November matches. Delon Armitage's case was quite amusing. When Mathew Tait suffered an injury Armitage was called up to the seniors as cover. A few days later Tait recovered. Around the same time, however, Abendanon had got called up to replace Tom Varndell (who had not been picked regularly by Leicester so qualified for demotion).
Then Abendanon got injured and was replaced in the senior squad by Armitage who - like Ugo Monye who came in for the injured James Simpson-Daniel - eventually played in all four Tests, and did well. But, hold on, Armitage hadn't been in the Saxons on July 1, had he? No problem. For one apparently pointless yet bureaucratically necessary night he took Abendanon's vacant position in the Saxons, then got promoted to the seniors the following morning as cover for Tait. Then he replaced Abendanon. Does your head ache as much as mine?
What we need from the RFU and PRL is clarification very soon on who can and cannot take part in the 2009 Six Nations. Unless another bit of small print says otherwise, it would seem that a player would have to be demoted before Wilkinson can return.
If that's correct, here's a not too outlandish scenario. Cipriani and/or Toby Flood gets picked for the first couple of Six Nations matches but plays like a drain. Wilkinson meanwhile comes back for his club early and, beaming his gleaming smile, declares he is ready for England. Johnson checks the small print and can't find any of his No 10s either injured or not getting picked by their clubs. What happens next?
Answers on a postcard to M Johnson, c/o Twickenham.
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