Yesterday’s announcement of Stuart Lancaster’s 31-man squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup yesterday has already been extensively analysed in the media but here’s my six pennies’ worth.
Let me begin by stating that, as an England supporter, I very much hope that everything which follows will be proved wrong and that I shall be eating a large slice of humble pie on 1st November.
First, the captaincy. Chris Robshaw is a splendid fellow but a classic Number 7 he is not. He’s a likable humble man (an undoubted plus) and has one of the biggest engines in the rugby world – his stamina and work ethic is second to none – but folklore has it that every team needs a lightning-fast ‘groundhog’ in his field position, someone who can get to the breakdown first and either secure possession and/or, alternatively as the situation may demand, prevent the opposition from doing so. Recently Australia experimented with playing two of them in the same team. Meanwhile Robshaw is a six feet two, near-18 stone battleship. This means that England have decided to play a different type of ‘back row’ game to most of the teams they’ll come across in the RWC.
In my view, there’s an inherent risk attached.
Mentioning Australia brings me my second point on captaincy, which springs from the world of cricket. There was a view that England’s cricket selectors began by picking the ‘right’ captain first before proceeding to consider the rest of the team. Occasionally this worked – the example of Mike Brearley comes to mind.
In contrast, the Australian policy was always to pick its best eleven players … and only then decide which of them would be the best skipper of the bunch.
From the outset Stuart Lancaster has gone the England cricket selectors’ route. Perhaps he was prompted to do so by the chaos he inherited from the catastrophic Martin Johnson regime that imploded during the 2011 RWC.
Personally, I think this was a mistake. Partly because success in rugby – at any level – necessarily requires teamwork above all else, the world of elite rugby is rammed with ‘big’ characters, i.e. players with innate charisma and leadership qualities. Statistically there are probably more potential captains in a rugby XV than in most other team sports.
Nevertheless, in Robshaw, Lancaster saw the embodiment of what he (probably correctly at the time) felt the England set-up needed. A break with the past and a torch bearer for what he wished to instil – a new culture of professionalism and pride in the shirt. Someone that was a consummate team player, who would set an example in terms of behaviour on and off the field and who could be relied upon to give his all every time he played. Robshaw scored heavily on all those criteria, and still does.
But he will never be what rugby tends to expect of a 7. That’s all I’m saying.
Regime culture dominates Lancaster’s thinking and, to be fair, his 2015 England set-up is light years away from – and ahead of – the malaise that was the hallmark of Martin Johnson’s England.
This also explains why maverick fly-half Danny Cipriani and lock Dave Attwood failed to make the final cut.
Cipriani is a great talent, but in his case it inevitably comes with the ‘issues’ and baggage that have featured so often in the media’s gossip pages. Spontaneity and creativity are one thing but – if this is your view – it should never come at the risk of undermining the strategy and tactics you have determined will best get you to where you want to be – in the RWC final.
Cipriani tries hard to rein himself in but ultimately finds it difficult to sublimate his exuberant ‘on the hoof’ reading of a game to the greater good of a team. There was also a time when he believed his own publicity. There were rumours of an occasion years ago, when an England Saxons team, flying to a tournament, had been booked to sit together in economy class. Cipriani – with two others in the squad – decided to book himself into club class on said flight. Not something calculated to impress people like Stuart Lancaster or his coaching team – call it ‘the wrong attitude’.
On the face of it, he’s a potential England regular and indeed great – big (very big), ugly, strong and highly aggressive – a Danny Grewcock type of a player, the sort that gets his retaliation in first and ask questions later. Most teams like to include a lock ‘enforcer’ like that, think Marin Johnson for England or Bakkies Botha for South Africa. But it seems the young Saracen George Kruis received the nod this week from the 2015 England coaches over Attwood because … well, the latter’s ‘edge’ doesn’t just get switched to ‘green’ when he runs onto a pitch – it’s churning away inside him permanently, rendering him aggressive to everyone and everything. Not perhaps quite the right thing when, above all, you’re seeking to engender a ‘band of brothers’ team spirit.
Maybe next time, Dave.
From my perspective, the regime that England coaches Lancaster, Andy Farrell, Mike Catt and Graham Rowntree are going for also explains the (on the face of it) strange inclusion of rugby league great Sam Burgess in the final party. He’s failed to impress as a prospective England international on the pitch in the nine months since he joined Bath. He’s still a novice as a rugby union player.
The big things going for him are his size (six feet five and 18 stone) and his character – dominant and committed yet also self-effacing, willing to do anything and everything for his team [although that, at the moment, he gives the impression that he still needs someone to tell him what that is]. With Burgess, Lancaster and his coaching staff have placed their last twenty casino chips on the roulette wheel marked ‘impact potential’. If Burgess could bring even 70% of his brilliance as a rugby league player to union, he wouldn’t just be an England international, he’d have the potential to be world class one.
The sceptics amongst us worry on two scores. Firstly, thus far he’s shown little to demonstrate that he can go all the way, despite his ‘against the odds’ curate’s egg of a debut outing against France two weeks ago in which he confounded some of his critics.
Secondly, he’s only 26 and almost certainly has another RWC in him in four years’ time – the concern being that, to include him in the 2015 squad may prove to be premature, purely in terms of both historic evidence and current form.
Otherwise, the inclusion of Henry Slade aside (I’ve been impressed by him for the past two years and would have picked him as a ‘bolter’ myself), you know what?
Like with the announcement of many an England squad in the recent past – whether rugby, cricket, or even soccer – the strongest reaction I’ve had in the actualité is one of slight anti-climax.
Somehow one always counts down the waiting time to a forthcoming ‘big announcement’ of this nature with mounting excitement and anticipation … and then, when it gets published, the fact it’s 99% as you’d predicted in advance is a bit of a disappointment.