Wooden Spoon lurking in the shadows
January 25, 2012
ESPN analyst Austin Healey believes Courtney Lawes is the ideal man to lead England © Getty Images
It's that time of year again and everyone is asking who is going to win the Six Nations? I think this could be France's year followed by Ireland or Wales with England looking alarmingly vulnerable.
This year's Six Nations represents the biggest danger England have faced in the Championship since they last picked up the Wooden Spoon. We are in the massive unknown - we are almost in the same boat as the French as we do not know what side will appear on the pitch.
Looking at England's schedule - none of the games are guaranteed wins for Stuart Lancaster's side. The England backline worries me and the forwards won't be able to dominate sides like they used to. The Scottish pack is big and the back-row is abrasive and I think Scotland's are favourites for that match at Murrayfield.
And then it's off to Rome and the Italian's for Lancaster's men. After they beat France last year they will be massively up for the game and that will also be a very tough place to go. I can potentially see England losing their opening two games if they don't get the playing style right and if the players do not take ownership of what the coaches have told them to do.
But the squad selection is pretty good. With eight Saints players in the squad, it's to Northampton's credit that they have produced so many young English players - although Dylan Hartley was born in New Zealand. They are all pretty good players and could become the bedrock of the England team and the one surprise in there is Calum Clark and I think some people may see that as a pet project from Lancaster's point of view. But he may get a chance to shine with Tom Wood injured - a man who was previously earmarked as a candidate for the captaincy.
The majority of people will go for Chris Robshaw when it comes to the debate over who should wear the skipper's armband. I have mixed feelings about Dylan Hartley though - if he's captain then he's less likely to do the stupid petulant things he does in the England shirt which is perhaps one argument for him getting the armband. But then there's the other side which argues that you don't give someone the captaincy to prevent them from doing bad things. I'm not sure if he's the right guy to take England forward though. He is in a similar mould to Lewis Moody in that he leads by example but you wouldn't get that much in terms of strategy and diagnostics.
I personally think that Courtney Lawes would be a great captain for England but I get shot down by most people whenever I say it. He has an energy about him and his work rate is phenomenal and his physicality is fantastic.
But the England backline really worries me - they are thin in that department and much depends on delivery. With Ben Youngs struggling for form Lee Dickson has put his hand forward quite well. He's more of an organising scrum-half though than a threatening nine. And England have a good balance in that position as Youngs does special things in an England shirt and it's very difficult to do that every week unless you're me.
And it looks like they'll go for a Sarries backline with Charlie Hodgson at fly-half, Owen Farrell at inside centre and maybe Brad Barritt at 13 and possibly David Strettle at 14. They could all line up alongside Chris Ashton who recently announced his move to Saracens.
If you class a good move as getting more money then it's a good move for Ashton. But if you class a good move in the terms of enjoying your rugby then I believe it's a terrible move for the winger. Saracens are a good club and if you play on the wing there you will hardly ever see the ball and if a rugby player has a good idea of what he wants to achieve then he'll be looking to get on the ball as much as possible and that was happening at the Saints.
In terms of the fullback debate, Ben Foden has proved that he has the experience but Mike Brown is playing the rugby of his life but does that mean that he is good enough to warrant taking over from Foden? It's a really tough decision and ideally you'd want both on the field but Foden doesn't have any experience on the wing and Brown's probably not quick enough to be an international winger. But one thing that Brown has got that Foden hasn't - is his last line defence. Foden seems to be struggling in that department as I have seen him miss countless tackles on the last runner and he needs to work on that area. That is one aspect that needs to be addressed as he must be there to make tackles when the chips are down. If Brown has one aspect of his game that is significantly better than Foden's, then that's his defence.
So far Stuart Lancaster has made all the right noises. However, all that ends when they get to Murrayfield as it doesn't matter what you've said in the press, it doesn't matter who you've banned for drink driving - if a team doesn't perform on the field then that's what you're gauged on. Sir Clive Woodward got an opportunity out of nowhere and he took it and there's no reason why Lancaster cannot do the same. If England come out playing attractive but pragmatic rugby - why shouldn't he be the long-term coach?
I'd much rather have him than Nick Mallet and everything he has done so far has been excellent. He's also not a journeyman coach - he's dipped his toe into the youth side of the game and he's been involved at Leeds where he learnt from the mistakes he made there.
And if he can bring in experts in different areas of the side then that would work well alongside his brand of man management which is perfect for the head coach role at England.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby
"It has been the World Cup that smashed down the gender barriers of the sport." Tom Hamilton looks back at a remarkable tournament
A selection of the best pictures from England's historic World Cup triumph in Paris as they beat Canada 21-9
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Women's World Cup, the opening round of the Top 14 and the Rugby Championship
When the Great War broke out, rugby in Australia and New Zealand initially soldiered on. Rewind looks back