What is the state of the England side as they head towards an epic fixture against Scotland at Murrayfield?
This time a year ago, there was a hushed sense of expectation surrounding the Red Rose of English rugby. Unlike their round-balled counterparts, supporters of the England rugby side have never been quick to become overly expectant, but after a comprehensive 35-18 victory over the attacking juggernauts of Australia in the previous autumn and the increasingly exciting prospects of the likes of Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs terrorising opposing defences, supporters up and down the country began to experience a sense of confidence that had been unheard of in the shadow of a Six Nations Championship since their last Grand Slam victory in 2003 (and we all knew what happened later on in that year.)
Twelve months on, and any English confidence has flown out of the window faster than a Maori dwarf being used for lineout practice by Dylan Hartley. England endured a torrid World Cup campaign, never moving out of a rusty second gear and recreating none of the exciting brand of rugby that had flowed so effortlessly against the Wallabies at Twickenham in November 2010 and then again four months later, at the Millennium Stadium against the Welsh.
A dire first half showing against France in the quarter final (with ‘Les Bleus’ going in 16-0 up at half time) saw England leave the competition with much less of a splash than that caused by Manu Tuilagi’s ‘running bomb’ technique days later, but the psychological damage had already been dealt to some of the players after rumours of abusive behaviour to receptionists, drunken flirtations by a certain member of the Royal family and injuries caused through bungee jumping exploits. These unprofessional actions greatly ‘dwarfed’ any respect for the England set-up, and it came as no surprise to those in the game when manager Martin Johnson stepped down in November of last year, ending a relatively average reign at the top; mercifully, the decision came early enough to avoid any real tarnishing of Johnno’s legendary status in the English game.
Other problems in the England camp have been well documented since, but I feel that it is futile to linger on problems that have been and gone, and so instead let us look forward to one of the most intriguing portions of English rugby history in recent times.
When Stuart Lancaster was handed the job as interim England head coach, it appeared at first glance that he had been given a poisoned chalice, bringing with it squad difficulties and an instant need for success that could not possibly be achieved. However, he has viewed it very differently, and his approach to the England setup has been both refreshing and encouraging.
With the Six Nations in mind, Lancaster made the bold choice of dropping long-standing stalwarts such as Mike Tindall, Nick Easter and Mike Cueto in favour of youthful talent in the form of Owen Farrell, Lee Dickson and Joe Marler, amongst others, who have all been performing consistently well in the Premiership and Europe for well over a season now. A major criticism of Johnson’s stint as head coach of the national side was his sentimental view towards players such as Johnny Wilkinson, Lewis Moody and HRH Mr Tindall, all who played a major role during that famous night in Sydney nine years ago. Johnno’s decision to continually select players like these largely stifled the opportunities of promising youngsters coming through the ranks; Manu Tuilagi apart, there was very little risk-taking in his selection for the World Cup squad.
Lancaster, on the other hand, has completely overhauled the hierarchy of the England squad in the run-up to a tough Six Nations campaign and given the responsibility to those who may well be wearing the white jersey in two World Cups time. Realising the immediate need for change, he even relocated the squad to a base in Leeds to focus on their rugby as opposed to the plush Pennyhill Park Hotel and Spa.
So, how do England look as we head towards a tough Calcutta Cup encounter at Murrayfield on 4th February? Well, this is a difficult question to answer as we have had no chance to see how this new look squad will gel, and injuries to Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi in the backline has left voids in two of England’s strongest positions. This unfortunate predicament may actually be a blessing in disguise for Lancaster however, giving him the opportunity to blood the youngsters early and see how it works, most notably messrs Farrell and Brad Barritt, whose partnership at Saracens has blossomed into one of the tightest in the English game. Charlie Hodgson may well start at fly-half against Scotland to ensure a calm, experienced head to control the play, allowing Farrell a birth at centre. Meanwhile, Ben Foden has competition in the full-back position from Mike Brown; both are electric counter-attackers and I expect both to cause problems for any defence in the competition. That, of course, is without mentioning Chris Ashton, whose sour relationship with his club Northampton will hopefully have little effect on his performances in the Six Nations- he is undoubtedly one of the best finishers in the game, and Charlie Sharples will offer pace on the opposite wing. If this exciting new backline is to cause problems and function as fluidly as hoped, it will almost certainly rely on a return to form of Leicester Tigers’ charismatic scrumhalf, Ben Youngs.
Youngs’ early showings in an England jersey were more than encouraging, including a sensational solo try in Australia and against the same opposition at Twickenham later in the year. However, his form has dipped of late, and many Tigers fans have criticized his petulant attitude in recent matches in the Heineken Cup; whilst scrumhalves are often joked about as the players with the shortest of fuses (in a metaphorical sense!), this is not an aspect that an international player of Youngs ability should boast. When on form, he can unlock any defence, and with the likes of Farrell and Barritt outside him (added to Flood and Tuilagi when they are fit again), the other defences in the Six Nations will be quaking in their boots. However, his temper arguably cost England a foothold in their Grand Slam decider against Ireland last March, and repeat performances of that calibre will not ensure he retains the number 9 shirt for long. The little dynamo, and son of former England international Nick Youngs, may well be the key to the outcome in this experimental championship, but if he fails to impress, Lee Dickson and Joe Simpson provide very able alternatives.
There has been much said about the prospects of Lancaster’s new look backline, as I have already alluded to, yet it is in the pack that England will look to dominate against their opponents in the coming weeks as they have done in championships gone by. The relative international nous of Dan Cole in the front row will hopefully see a strong partnership form between him and Quins’ Joe Marler, a great scrummager and strong runner. In the second row, injuries to Courtney Lawes and Louis Deacon will leave England with just two out-and-out locks to pick from, but Tom Palmer played well in the World Cup and Tom Croft as ever will be an imperious force in the lineout.
As for the back row, Chris Robshaw has been handed the captain’s armband for the Murrayfield match on 4th February, and he epitomises what Lancaster wants from his new England side: professionalism and passion, something the head coach believes the Harlequins flanker has in abundance. He is joined by the likes of Phil Dowson from Northampton and Ben Morgan of Llanelli Scarlets, both part of the uncapped brigade.
For Stuart Lancaster, who informed the media this week that he would be applying for the England job proper in the future, the Murrayfield match is a huge one, if not in terms of result then certainly in terms of performance. His bold selection policy has given English supporters a glimpse of his playing philosophy, so a performance similar to that of England in the World Cup, with a flat backline and sluggish, ill-disciplined forward play, would be perceived as a backward step for the team. Alternatively, a dynamic display by all involved (reminiscent of Harlequins, the best English team by far this season at this point) would be massively refreshing, and to many could be more important than actually securing a victory. After all, Lancaster has shown that England have the talent for future success by selecting them now, so let us give them a run in the team and see if they can develop into the world beaters that they have the potential to be, without following in the dull footsteps of England sides gone by (see the past two World Cup campaigns for further details).
This Six Nations Championship thus has the potential to be a turning point in English rugby, and could see the Red Rose beging to truly blossom for the first time in a decade. It takes much longer than six weeks to create a world class rugby outfit (just ask any New Zealander, who had to wait 24 years between World Cup victories), and it would naïve of fans to expect miracles to occur overnight, but Lancaster has at his disposal the foundations of a side that could be nurtured into something reminiscent of the class of 2003.
All that being said, there is no reason why England cannot retain their Six Nations crown, and a win at the weekend in the Calcutta Cup match against a Scotland side looking for revenge after being dumped out of the World Cup by England in the group stages will certainly go along way to adding the ingredient of confidence to a recipe that currently boasts plenty of talent, potential and self-belief. Needless to say, by the end of the 80 minutes at Murrayfield amidst the vitriolic atmosphere that is synonymous with this fixture, England fans will have a decent idea as to whether the glory days of English rugby will be returning any time soon.