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Monday, January 16, 2006


Other Unions / Teams: The Southern Hemisphere's favourite journalist speaks out

It's the columnist that all avid Southern Hemisphere rugby fans wait with bated breath for.

Source: The Sunday Times,
By: Stephen Jones

Many England places remain up for grabs and there is a need for new blood in the squad to be named this week

It is the equivalent in rugby of the first cuckoo of spring. On Wednesday England announce their first squad of the new year, which will prepare for the opening of the RBS Six Nations on February 4, and yet another chapter begins in England’s attempts to live down their World Cup win in what has been a tortuous post-glory period.

There will be 30 names announced, but the chief fascination lies in the announcement — or omission — of one: Lawrence Dallaglio. Friends of Andy Robinson claimed that he was undecided as late as this weekend as to whether he would restore Dallaglio but the Wasps captain seemed to play down his chances in Toulouse last night, after he had played valiantly in his club side’s 19-13 Heineken Cup defeat.

“I have done my best at all times to try to put myself in the frame and it must be good for England to have as many people contending as possible in every position,” he said. “There have been one or two contacts with the England management but I have to be perfectly fair, they have not been recent.”

Dallaglio’s recent form has been vastly improved. Yesterday as well, it seemed the old aura had been restored. Categorically, he is among the 30 best players in England. Yet there are odd rumours that Robinson would deem his return as upsetting the atmosphere in what is seen as a new-look England squad. This strikes me as pure baloney. If the England squad does not contain men of sufficient stature and self-belief to absorb the return of one of England’s most influential players of all-time, then it does not say much for them. The case is not exactly rock-solid as yet, but Dallaglio is clearly still a force on the international scene.

There was a pervading anxiety after the autumn internationals. England beat Australia and Samoa and failed to beat New Zealand, chiefly because of some magnificent defence by the All Blacks in the closing stages. For any world champion, these are reasonable results. But I had difficulty buying into England’s media line that they were on their way as a developing team. The squad announced this week will have an air of worthiness, but not of potential domination or genius.

On this last quality, there are problems. Robinson has never quite come to grips with the construction of his midfield; there is an air of the ordinary about his lineout, about the balance of the back row and about his team as a potential attacking machine. In none of these areas has he been able to unearth, as yet, a world-class match-turner. It is surely not such a profound course correction to have either Dallaglio or Martin Corry, the estimable skipper, on the blindside flank. Those two alongside each other gives the team a regal core of inner belief and a section of the team to be feared by any other opposition.

Furthermore, I would reconstitute the midfield along the lines suggested by Jeremy Guscott. In other words, bring Josh Lewsey closer in to the action at outside-centre, outside Olly Barkley. This might be hard on Jamie Noon and it would be recognition that, at the moment, Mike Tindall has lost the multi-dimensional game he used to play. But to play Barkley outside Charlie Hodgson would give England a booming left foot to go with Hodgson’s booming right; it would give England a passer and distributor of real conviction and it would stop Lewsey’s talents being wasted.

And who will feed our talented trio? The shortage of world-class brilliance at scrum-half is still acute. Matt Dawson is playing well, but not brilliantly. Harry Ellis could not even make the Leicester team for today’s match against Stade Français. Ben Foden, the Sale tyro, is not ready and Shaun Perry, of Bristol, is untested in rugby’s stratosphere.

Up front, further head-scratching. Obviously, the position of middle-line jumper is a core element in any team, and for the autumn Robinson returned to an old favourite, Steve Borthwick. The Bath captain, as he always does, responded with devil, attitude and accuracy. He is no physical giant, however, and in terms of the scrummage and carrying of the ball in the loose as well as hitting power in the tackle, there is a trade-off for his outstanding lineout gifts.

Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, was recently extolling the virtues of lineout leaders. Ruddock’s opinion is that every team must have one and that explains his loyalty to Robert Sidoli, the Welsh lock of no particular size. It also explains Robinson’s understandable loyalty to Borthwick. But it will be fascinating to see on Wednesday if Robinson has discovered any locking giants around the game to give England hope of a real powerhouse in the position.

However, let’s not forget the good news. Some of England’s key players are finding thunderous form and, in this context, how marvellous it was to see Phil Vickery charging around Vicarage Road last Sunday during Gloucester’s win over Saracens. Indeed, given the rather turgid nature of the proceedings, it is tempting to suggest that Vickery was both the best forward and the best back on the field. Troubled by a hand injury at the end of last season, it takes a man of his size a good few matches to get back up to full pace and power. But he is almost there, raising the happy probability that England can field the best front row in Europe by a distance against Wales: Andrew Sheridan, Steve Thompson and the rejuvenated Vickery. Behind them, Danny Grewcock’s form is impressive.

In a few days, we will be able to better assess England’s immediate prospects. Alarmingly, the World Cup defence will come round in less than two years. If England are worthy contestants but potentially fallible and untouched by greatness, then the conveyor belt bringing the next generation of Test giants needs to accelerate right now.
A weirdly sober atricle from the man we love to hate.

It seems he may have some rugby knowledge after all given his accurate analysis of the shortcomings of England as they are now, right down to Andy Robinson's shortcomings on the coaching side.
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