Martin Johnson is taking a dangerous gamble with his squad for New Zealand, thinks Stuart Barnes.
Last Updated: 04/06/08 8:40am
Thirteen stitches for Charlie Hogson, a blow to the head for Toby Flood and Dan Hipkiss limping off in the final was a worry ahead of the New Zealand tour but maybe not quite as big a concern as the replacement selection of Hipkiss for Danny Cipriani originally was.
It passed almost unnoticed when Cipriani was injured but this was a blunder, no doubt about it. The events of the Barbarians match illustrated the potential damage.
England are effectively heading towards a Test series in New Zealand with three near identikit outside-centres and one specialist fly-half.
If Charlie Hodgson takes an early knock on Saturday, England's hopes are likely to be dashed within minutes of the whistle being blown on the new regime of Martin Johnson. Whether Hodgson survives unscathed or not, this selection is not so much a fresh change of direction as a naive one.
Johnson has long argued that he alone, in his former role as the great leader and his present rookie capacity as manager, is not the answer. The muddled thinking behind last week's selection gives substance to his protestations.
His rationale for the call-up of the Leicester centre was that England had good cover at fly-half with Charlie Hodgson, Olly Barkley and Toby Flood, so he opted for the muscular, side-stepping skills of Hipkiss.
But the reality is that England, after this decision, have no Test-match-standard cover for the critical fly-half position, and one wasted player who will get nowhere near either Test match.
In all ways it is an ill-conceived plan, predicated on the theory that the Bath and Newcastle inside-centres have experience enough to manage the position. At a certain level this is just about the case but New Zealand are some way beyond that.
It is incredulous to think that because Barkley has enjoyed a superb season for Bath, he will succeed wherever England play him. Either Johnson has not watched Barkley and Flood sufficiently, or he does not grasp the details of the midfield.
There is a world of difference between the fly-half and inside-centre positions. The skills required are similar but the vision of the game has to be far broader from ten. The inside-centre position is the auxiliary decision-maker and hugely important but unless a team has a rock solid structure to its game (as Johnson's England did in his latter days as captain) the risk of the side's shape being undermined by a fly-half with a narrow vision is too great to risk contemplating as this selection does.
England effectively travel with three scrum-halves, three hookers and one fly-half. Ask Johnson if England should tour with just the one specialist hooker and a couple of props who can hook in an emergency and you would be dismissed as an idiot, yet here is Johnson taking an identical gamble behind the scrum.
Barkley is the likely choice ahead of Flood, whose form floundered with Newcastle as his domestic season meandered towards a sluggish end. Yet the Bath man has proved time and again that his position is categorically twelve.
Bath with Butch James at fly-half and Barkley at inside-centre were an infinitely superior side to the one which made do with the Englishman at ten when James was injured. There was still the seasonal trademark Barkley break but not the steady control of the South African World Cup-winning pivot.
Not only is the failure to select a specialist replacement a risk for the team, it is also hard on both Barkley and Flood.
In training neither will be able to focus purely on his specific demands, frequently switching to ten in the eventuality of a Hodgson injury. When both should be developing their specific positional games, England are going to be distracting them with the 'what if?' thoughts of being utility men.
In Riki Flutey's acceptance speech as Players' Player of the Season at the PRA awards last Wednesday, he said, "In my younger days I was stuck in a utility position". Specialism has allowed him to develop from eye-catching cover for Wellington to England's player of the season; Johnson's decision to opt for Hipkiss may force Barkley, Flood or both back into that utility role which has sunk so many careers.
It would have been better if Johnson had plumped for his former Tigers teammate, Andy Goode, whose knowledge of the position would have helped England to at least maintain their structure in the event of an injury to Hodgson. Either that, or take a punt with the undoubted talent of Ryan Lamb (who admittedly looked ready for anything but a bone-jarring trip to New Zealand in the devastating wake of Gloucester's defeat last weekend.)
The England manager pointed to the current form of Hipkiss as a reason for the imbalanced selection but if he seriously does not believe a specialist fly-half is important, there remains the issue of choosing another centre whose assets are primarily of a muscular nature. Just being a side-stepper as opposed to a straight runner does not add much to England's variety at thirteen.
The more cerebral nature of Fraser Waters' game would have been a varied option and, on form, the Wasps man heads any current list of English centres.
Martin Johnson mastered the art of captaincy but he starts afresh as a selector. There are no guarantees.
A new road for Johnson beckons as the old one came to an end for Lawrence Dallaglio. Every bit as significant as Johnson, the last line of this week's column is congratulations to Wasps for their splendid achievement this season, and to the great eight for his mighty career.
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Stuart. So with Saturday's GP final we have had another major game with uncontested scrums. Why not change the law so that the team who is unable to contest scrums always concedes the put in? Best Wishes, Bob Poynter. Collingham, Notts
STUART REPLIES: Bob. Why not have an eighth dedicated scrum replacement who is only allowed on the pitch in the event of an 'unfortunate' scenario as occured Saturday. This seems a straightforward way of dealing with the dissatisfaction of uncontested scrums.
Hi Stuart. Do you think there is an inferiority complex associated with England going to NZ? England have appeared in the last two World Cup finals and NZ haven't gotten close.... and yet Rob Andrew talking on Sky Sports News, talks about possibly winning only one test! (Rob backs this up by saying "...England have only won twice in NZ in 100 years..." you know!) Shouldn't the attitude be that England are going to try and win both tests? Surely NZ are there for the taking...? Half of the World Cup team have gone and a bunch of rookies are waiting for a rampaging England. I am sure when NZ come north to play England and other Home Nations they are not thinking "lets pinch a test or two" they want to win every one of them! Why can't England think like that when playing two tests in NZ? Best regards, Nick Owens, Leeds.
STUART REPLIES: Nick, I don't see how England can have an inferiority complex anymore re. The All Blacks. That was the case when I toured this great rugby country in 1985 (and could have won a test had our kicker got his boots out of the Christchurch mud, ahem. Having beaten them in Wellington in 2003 and with a fine home record this England team has a chance if its pack rises to the challenge - despite some big absentees behind the scrum - if it truly believes it can win. It ain't like the team that toured South Africa last summer so let's see no excuses from Rob Andrew and the management.
Stuart, With the additions of Ben Foden, Neil Best, and a host of other new signings, it would appear that Northampton have improved their squad ahead of next year's Premiership return. The question is.. have they done enough to be competitive? I do have faith that Jim Mallinder will lead the Saints out of the woods relatively quickly if he remains at the helm and is not tempted away by the RFU. Regards, Dean, Atlanta, GA.
STUART REPLIES: Dean, I have a gentleman's side bet with Dewi that the Saints will finish in the top half of the table next season. I am looking forward to returning to the Gardens after a year's absence. It is one of the best grounds in the country with a team that will be exciting. I am keen to watch Chris Ashton whose absence from the Saxons tour makes me wonder whether England are manned with selectors possessed with an imagination. This bloke is the reason why A teams exist...
Have a good week, I am getting over a slice of jet lag as I write but nothing a good pinot noir will not cure. Off to watch the All Blacks begin their next four-year build up towards another World Cup...oh dear