When Charlie Hodgson announced his international retirement at the end of June after a bit-part role in England’s tour of South Africa, nobody made too much fuss. Granted, there were some appropriately understated tributes to a man whose talent merited far more than 38 caps, but the prevailing feeling was that Stuart Lancaster had a pair of tried and tested performers at his disposal in Toby Flood and Owen Farrell. A 31 year-old with a history of defensive frailties would, apparently, not be missed.
Nearly three months on, such confidence seems slightly misplaced. Hodgson has found a new lease of life at Saracens, marking his move down from Stockport with some exceptional form. Fizzing passes from almost parallel to the gain-line, the veteran has ignited a new-look backline. Naturally, he has also made his kicks and passed 2,000 Premiership points during the Fez-Heads’ opening day demolition of London Irish at Twickenham.
Then, inexplicably, Hodgson was dropped to the bench for Saturday’s showdown against Leicester. The consequences, if not quite disastrous, were concerning. Frankly, anyone who watched an abject 9-9 draw will have been extremely discouraged with the state of England’s stand-off options. As well as missing four first-half penalties, Farrell was lateral and failed to create anything of a midfield spark. Opposite him, Flood seemed all at sea, sitting very deep at times and pressurising Sam Harrison, his young halfback partner, into managing Tigers’ attacks.
In short, both seemed pedestrian compared to foreign top-tier rivals, namely Stephen Jones of Wasps and Harlequin Nick Evans, both of whom enjoyed exceptional weekends. Only when Hodgson was finally introduced with half an hour to play did Saracens – then six points down – click into gear. Although a straightforward drop-goal chance went awry, the replacement was by far the most assured fly-half on show at Wembley.
Now, as a trio of tough encounters with the Southern Hemisphere giants looms on the autumn horizon – as well as a useful run-out against Fiji the week before – Lancaster could be forgiven for taking a rain check. He has enjoyed a sympathetic bedding-in period so results are essential, but there are exactly three years to go until the next World Cup. That is plenty of time for a different name to assert himself in such a key position.
Speaking very shortly after his permanent appointment last week, newly-instated Mike Catt announced that England were “only 15 or 20 percent towards where we want to go.” Maybe the remaining distance can be made up with someone else. Let’s have a look at the candidates.
Freshen up entirely
The presence of George Ford and Freddie Burns in the Saxons squad named at the beginning of July is undoubtedly heartening. Evidently the ones-in-waiting after eye-catching Under 20 careers, both have taken their baby steps in the Premiership with unflappable poise. In fact, as Flood was floundering with a knee problem at the end of last year, teenager Ford thrived in the pressure-cooker of knockout rugby, while Burns was very nearly handed a ticket to Durban. The Gloucester tyro has started well again this season, and will benefit from being surrounded by an axis of Ben Morgan, Jimmy Cowan and Billy Twelvetrees over the course of the campaign.
Although Ford is far too mild-mannered to say so, the biggest obstacle he faces at the moment is Richard Cockerill. After condemning him to a summer in the weights room – which has yielded a nine-kilogram gain – Leicester’s head coach seems reluctant to deploy his starlet. Tellingly, Ford stayed on the bench this Saturday. With a distinct lack of Saxons fixtures, only overwhelmingly strong Premiership form will promote either member of this precocious duo. Tom Heathcote of Bath could join the club, pending successful rehabilitation from pre-season knee trouble.
Take a chance on an exile
It had to happen. A discussion on potential England number tens would not be the same without uttering the name of Danny Cipriani, especially now that the former (Melbourne) Rebel has relocated closer to home. Unfortunately, despite sky-high expectations in Cheshire, Bryan Redpath has not yet galvanised his Sale charges. During three losses – two of them heavy – Cipriani has hardly shone. He is, however, in the right place. Time is one hell of a healer and the skill that once ripped Ireland apart at Twickenham will still be there somewhere.
For some, Olly Barkley has re-emerged. In my opinion, though, this is just as far-fetched as a Cipriani recall. Though the 30 year-old has 23 caps from way-back-when and is in fine goal-kicking fettle, an unimaginative streak is crippling for his case. Shane Geraghty, back with London Irish following an ill-fated French foray, has also pulled on a white shirt, but don’t hold your breath for a repeat.
Steady the ship with a familiar face
The thought of tempting Hodgson back out of the club game is pretty depressing, even if he is the form fly half in England. Then again, it was good enough for Sir Alex Ferguson. When Manchester United ran out of options halfway through last season, the Scottish genius compelled Paul Scholes to return to his well-worn spot in midfield.
It is always dangerous and often idiotic to aim comparisons across sports, but Scholes and Hodgson do share some key qualities – brilliant distribution, an inconsistent success ratio on the tackling front. Alright, that’s enough. I promise not to push this idea, at least for another few weeks. The impact that such a drastic u-turn would have on the current crop would be debilitating, for a start. We won’t even mention Jonny Wilkinson.
Keep calm and carry on
A composed, clear thinker and pragmatic man-manager, Lancaster will not actually have been overly worried by the Wembley woes. Besides, it wasn’t long ago that Farrell was lauded by as the place-kicking prodigy to cure the crisis of 2011 after a prominent role in Six Nations victories over Scotland and Italy. Similarly, incumbent stand-off Flood has been good in Leicester’s two enterprising bonus-point wins earlier this month.
The ace that Lancaster does have in the EPS is former fly half Alex Goode, a footballer easily skilful enough to step up from fullback if required. While Farrell could well have been phased out by 2015, in the meantime he can be coaxed through these blips in form, especially with his fellow Saracen alongside him in the match-day 22 to direct attacking patterns, identify opportunities to counter and even take the reins at first-receiver if necessary. Speculation will rage on and on – it always does. For now, though, England will stick to their guns amid the misfire.
What do you think? Who do you think should start at fly-half for England in the Autumn Internationals?