England – Revolution or Evolution? Part 1

It’s a huge week for England – Stuart Lancaster will be announcing his 32-man Six Nations squad, and we all will hope that the farce of RWC11 will be put firmly behind them.

Of the XV that started against France in the quarter-final, no fewer than seven (Thommo – retired, Deacon – injured, Moody – retired, Wilko – retired, Tuilagi – injured, Easter and Cueto (already told they’re cut)) and two of the subs (Shawsie – retired, Haskell Inc – expanding the brand in Japan) definitively won’t be donning the red rose in Murrayfield in three and a bit weeks. Tindall has gone too, and the new broom is likely to sweep away a few others.

Lancaster’s binning of Danny Care for his idiotic (and dangerous) behaviour sent a powerful message – no longer will Johnno’s cloak of loayalty be thrown around the players – they will need to prove they are good enough men as well as good enough players for England.

We can expect some changes in addition to the above – Lancaster has intimated that dull and conservative gameplans are to be left to Deccie – word is a boshing 12 is off the table for example. But how far is the boat going to be pushed out here? Are England going to do a Lieveremont 08 and pick a Francois Trinh-Duc to groom him for RWC15? Or is it going to be more gradual? It would be all well and good flooding the squad with new names, but the style of play has got to change as well as the personnel.  Let’s look at the question in 3 key areas, as we ask: will Lancaster be a Roundhead or a Cavalier, a Robespierre or a Louis XVI…

Backrow:

Since Neil Back retired, England have struggled to find a good backrow balance. When Moody isn’t fit (often), they tended to shoehorn a blindside into the 7 shirt – Worsley or Haskell for example. England have had a surfeit of uninspiring blindsides in recent years (the two mentioned above, or Tom Croft) and the lack of a real fetcher has tended to make the ball to the backs even more stodgy.

Roundheads: Here is a chance for Lancaster to have an impact. Select Andy Saull, a proper openside who looks like he may fit in with a slicker gameplan. Ben Morgan is a Lion in the making – all the assumptions were he was waiting for Welsh qualification, but he has done a Barnesy and gone back to the country of his birth. With Tom Wood at 6 and Chris Robshaw on the bench, England would look more dynamic.

Cavaliers: Continuing with the status quo would see Crofty back at 6 and an awkward blindside fit at 7 (Wood or Robshaw). Thomas the Tank Engine would eschew space for contact from number 8, and, without an openside, the backs can forget it.

Fly-half:

For the last 2 years, it has been the Barnesy/Rob Andrew debate again – the flair and flat alignment of Floody versus the defensive rock, but attacking pebble, that is Wilko. Johnno never looked likely to pick anyone but Wilko when squeaky-bum time arrived, and the first post-6N mistake by Floody meant he was out. Flood is now injured and Wilko gone.

Robespierre: Danny Cipriani is called back from Australia with a clean slate and given a chance to show everyone what we have been missing for the last three years. Charlie comes back as an elder statesman and an avowed attacker. George Ford gets to train with the squad.

Louis XVI: Cipriani is ignored, and Owen Farrell is brought in as a 10 – he has decent hands, but a howitzer of a boot which it would be tempting to use at first five – it’s more expansive than Wilko but not much.

Centres:

If anything typified the malaise of England under Johnno, it was the depressing sight of Shontayne Hapless and Matt Banahan as a centre partnership – not a subtle pass between them, and lots of contact. Hape was well out of his depth (even Scotland or Italy would not have picked him) and Banahan is not an international centre – it’s one thing to bosh your way to four tries against Aironi, quite another to do so against BOD, Rougerie or Roberts. Tindall was a rather uninspiring constant in the equation.

Union: Billy Twelvetrees, Henry Trinder and JJ Joseph come into the squad. Farrell plays at 13, outside an expansive 10, where he has more space to work with.

Confederacy: Brad Barritt and Jordan Turner-Hall are new faces, but they are the slightly richer man’s James Downey – not men Ben Foden would relish playing outside. Banahan keeps his place, and the emphasis on bosh continues.

We’ll be back tomorrow to review Lancaster’s squad and deliver our verdict.

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Cordite Awards 2010-11

So, with Toulouse winning the Bouclier de Brennus, the Northern Hemisphere season proper ground to a halt on Saturday night.  However, we’ll still be busy in the off-season, so stay with us over the coming weeks.  We’ll be having a look at Ireland’s World Cup squad options, taking a very long view of the Lions Tour in 2013, and later in the summer, looking at the other teams involved in the World Cup, all the while keeping an eye on goings on down under in the none-too-straightforward Super 15.

But to cap off a memorable season, here are the inaugural Cordite Awards.  Take it away, boys:
Davy Tweed award for International Diplomacy: Chris Ashton. After the November series, it seemed like England had put together a team and a style which was likeable to the neutral. Luckily, Chris Ashton’s increasingly tiresome series of swallow dives against second rate teams restored the status quo of bitterness and resentment from the Celts.
Jason Robinson award for inter-code relations: Shontayne Hape. Never again will right-thinking union fans consider it a good thing that a rugby league player is considering a code switch. Shontayne’s selfless work to denigrate the lesser code is appreciated by all.
Captain Cook award for appreciation of Pacific culture: Stuart Barnes. Barnesy has numerous entries here, mostly for his uncontainable excitement at Manu Tuilagi’s tackling technique but this reached his apogee when Manu unleashed his frustration at not winning the Davy Tweed award on the likeable young scamp Chris Ashton in the AP playoffs.
Jules Winfield award for nutritious snacks: Paddy Wallace. Belfast man Paddy sat on the Ireland bench for around 397 minutes of the 6 Nations, spending the other 3 as a blood sub for Dorce. The word is he makes a seriously mean half-time orange. I mean, why else would he be there, its not like the incumbent Ireland 12 was playing like a drain or anything.

Arsene Wenger award for false hope: Danny Cipriani. After bursting on to the scene for the Melbourne Rebels with a series of eye-catching performances, and one fantastic individual try, Danny Cipriani’s season descended into disciplinary issues, conflict with management, and ultimate disappointment. WoC is a huge fan, but maybe Johnno was right all along.
Brendan Venter award for Whinging about the Ref: Gerry Thornley.  It didn’t matter who was reffing or playing this year, if an Irish team lost, the erstwhile Gerry found a way to blame the ref. Pearson and Poite got the worst of it, usually for daring to penalise the Munster forwards in a European game. WoC contacted Gerry once this season, and got the frenzied response that Pearson had asked Wilko for his autograph at full-time. Hmmmmmmm.

Niccolo Machiavelli award for political scheming: Frankie Sheahan. Commentating on RTE on a nondescript ML game just before the 6 Nations, Frankie awarded the MotM to his client (and WoC favourite), David Wallace. Wally himself was clearly bemused during the presentation, probably because he did not break sweat and came off after 50 minutes. WoC is sure it had nothing to do with the fact that Wally was fighting with Sean O’Brien for the Ireland 7 shirt the following week.

Frankie Sheahan award for neutrality: Stephen Jones. We were going to give the entire Irish press corps this award for confidently predicting Ireland would easily dispatch the Springboks without breaking sweat in November, but then we saw the Stephen Jones 2013 Lions team. A Henson-Roberts centre partnership might be more convincing if either of them 1. had played recently, or 2. were actually any good.
Warren Gatland award for trash-talking: Neil Best. The Worcester Warrior wasn’t Deccie-bashing on his own behalf, but for Roger Wilson and James Downey, who were no doubt delighted that such a renowned statesman as Besty was batting on their behalf. Wilson must have particularly appreciated this gem from Neil: “I look at the Ireland back-row and think you need to be world-class to get in there”

The Tana Umaga Award for Failing to Ground the Ball: Graham Kitchener.  Toulouse’s Caucau being too fat to bend over and ground the ball properly was one thing, but it wasn’t that important in the end. So the prize goes to Worcester’s Graham Kitchener who ran in for a try 5 minutes from time in the playoff semi-final, with Worcester still needing the conversion to take the lead, celebrated, and then knocked-on.  He looked a broken man afterwards.

The Stephen Jones Award for Bizarre Punditry: Jeremy Guscott.  At the Sunday Times’ chummy roundtable discussion before the Six Nations the subject of young Scottish lock Richie Gray came up.  All were agreed that he looked a prospect.  All, that is, except for Jeremy Guscott, who said ‘he looks like he’s running through quicksand’.  It made little sense then, and absolutely none after the tournament finished, and Gray was pencilled in by most as the 2013 Lions Test 2nd row.

The George H W Bush ‘No More Taxes’ Award for About Face: George Hook.  Serial winner of this award George Hook triumphs again on several counts, chief among them his assertion after the Scotland game that Jonny Sexton shouldn’t play for Ireland until after the World Cup.  Post-HEC Final, Hooky is calling for Sexton to be captain.  He’s not prone to hysteria, is our George.

Will they never learn?

Danny Cipriani’s latest antics for the Melbourne Rebels saw him left behind for their trip to South Africa for two Super 15 games. It seems that both his management and teammates at the Australian franchise have already lost faith in him, just halfway through his first season down under. The story comes hot on the heels of two of rugby’s other serial morons getting in a spot of bother: step forward Gavin ‘Agent Orange’ Henson at Toulon and Andy ‘Golf Cart’ Powell, at Wasps (he will be at Sale next season).

The story made us wonder if for certain personalities the lessons of times past can simply never be learned. For most Level II Morons, the penny eventually drops, usually resulting in a lifetime of full-page newspaper articles on the theme of growing up, harsh lessons learned and so forth. But for Cippers, Gav and Andy it appears that no matter how many wise old sages attempt to beat some sense in to them, they are destined to be remembered for their misdemeanours rather than their sporting achievements. The time is surely beckoning, even for the immensely gifted Cipriani (whatever about the ‘talents’ of the other two), where professional clubs will decide that the gamble of hiring their services simply isn’t worth it.