By a variation to the current deal between the RFU and the Premiership clubs agreed earlier this year, in the special circumstances of the 12 months leading to the Rugby World Cup England head coach Stuart Lancaster still has until the middle of October to name his Elite Playing Squad for the autumn internationals. Under the agreement as it stood he would normally have had to name it in August, after which he would then be able to alter it only in exceptional circumstances (e.g. catastrophic injury) and within narrow guidelines.
Let us leave aside for a moment the obvious illogicality of the original arrangement – most particularly, of course, that a lot can happen in terms of not just injury but form, consistency and even some new tyro suddenly appearing on the scene from nowhere, in the ten weeks between a squad being named in mid-August and beginning of the autumn internationals period – and wallow in the fact that for once the authorities have got it right.
The new Premiership season has already thrown up some interesting results and intriguing movements in reputation since it began just three weeks ago. Today I just wish to concentrate upon one selection dilemma for the England squad – indeed any squad – with serious ambitions to get their mits upon the William Webb Ellis trophy this time twelve months hence.
As little as two seasons ago, Lancaster was all over the place as regards his choice as starting full back.
His desire to get both the excellent footballer Alex Goode of Saracens – capable of playing at 10, 12 or 15 – and the solid and feisty Mike Brown of Harlequins (a classic full back) in the England starting XV caused Lancaster to pick Goode at full back and Brown out of position on the wing.
This was not a success.
As ever, Goode tended to waft in and out of the game, showing glimpses of both his talent and frailties. Meanwhile, though Brown did his best out wide, he was neither a natural finisher nor quite fast enough to shine on the wing and was shown up badly by Cuthbert in the dramatic 3-30 Six Nations deciding loss to Wales in March 2013.
Through injury, Brown then had the chance to start at full back. Immediately he demonstrated what he could do – in 2013/2014 he was judged ‘Player of the Season’ in the Six Nations and became a fixture in the England side, if not the first name on the team sheet after the captain’s.
So far in the Premiership this season Saracens, for whom Alex Goode plays, and Northampton Saints – who seem to have Ben Foden, recovered from injury and a poor run of form, back to his best – are making the early running.
Accordingly, Goode and Foden are apparently putting pressure on Mike Brown (who plays for the stuttering Quins) for the England full back slot.
I don’t buy this line of thought.
Yes, both Goode and Foden have verve and flair to burn in attack, but they play for teams whose forward packs dominate the opposition and give them an armchair ride. Put them on the back foot, defending under heavy pressure as they would be in international games, and they’re not quite so hot.
In contrast Brown is in his natural element in defence – his considerable attacking abilities are a bonus added to his game in the last three years – and his strength of character is right on message with Lancaster’s carefully constructed humble, hardworking, culture. For me, Brown is out in front first choice full back and (frankly) neither Goode and Foden are worth picking to start on the wing. They’re Brown understudies or nothing at all.