Regardless of what happens on Saturday, it will not diminish the wretched nature of England’s Six Nations campaign. Each of the past two championships have ended on promising notes only for the team to disappear back into the abyss when they have next assembled. Seven games into the season and England’s gameplan is no nearer to becoming even remotely clear, let alone working.
Ashton: The Guinness Premiership’s form winger
They have nothing to lose in this game, they are almost certain to finish third in the Championship, their stock with their supporters can barely sink any lower and everybody expects them to get soundly beaten by a French team who have been head and shoulders above their rivals these past weeks. But England have very little to gain either because even a party-pooping performance in Paris will not erase the memories of what an utter chore it has been watching England making what is essentially a simple game look akin to explaining the theory of relativity to John Terry.
But don’t expect Martin Johnson to use this as an opportunity to experiment. That is not a word he includes in his vocabulary. In a tough international environment when winning the next game should be everything, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Continuity is desirable but not when it flies in the face of the evidence which is plainly obvious to anyone. There’s a fine line between stubbornness and plain pig-headedness and I’m afraid Johnno has been flirting dangerously with it for some time now. I fear he will charge headlong over it at selection this week.
The England camp are utterly delusional if they believe all the dull, rehearsed platitudes they have been disdainfully trotting out to their patient and long-suffering public over the past 2 months. It is vaguely insulting to the public to claim that there are ‘plenty of positives’ from every weak effort, as if the English rugby supporter knows so little about rugby that he will disregard the evidence of his own eyes if he is told that what he saw was actually not a directionless dirge.
After Saturday’s effort, Martin Johnson said, “The perception that the team is shackled and inhibited is wrong. We tried to do the right thing most of the time against Scotland but the mistakes killed us.” It looked to this observer as though it was the complete opposite. The lack of ambition and conviction, the total fear of making any mistakes was the problem. From the outside it looks as though the players are fearful that if they try something exciting and it goes wrong they will be dropped. Better not to try anything at all then because evidence suggests that is a surefire way of securing your selection for the next game. Johnno’s comments will have only served to make the players even more fearful of trying anything. It does not bode well for Saturday
England have taken the conservative approach of low risk, low reward one step further to no risk, no reward. Nobody has stood out as having shockers, but nobody has really stood out in any way at all. Which brings us round to selection for this weekend. Nobody expects that Johnson will have a sudden epiphany and let his team loose. There will be tinkering at best. Ben Foden must play. He was England’s only attacking bright spark on Saturday and has been the best attacking player in England all season. He should have been there for at least the past 2 games.
Danny Care should still retain his place but it would be good to see Ben Youngs get a run in his main position. If Wilkinson is fit he is likely to start, with Flood as standby although Shane Geraghty would be a far more progressive option. He is another player with bags of talent who must be given his head soon. Chris Ashton must be in the frame to come in for Ugo Monye – he is, along with the perennially overlooked James Simpson-Daniel, the form winger in the country.
There are also injury doubts over Steve Borthwick which could open the way for Simon Shaw to return but it would also have been pleasing to see Courtney Lawes, who has been inexplicably released from the squad, given a chance to build on his undoubted ability. Rumour has it that Louis Deacon has been playing the past few games although it is hard to find video evidence of this. England badly need some dynamism in their pack and Lawes could be the man to provide this. As a wildcard, Tom Croft is back playing for Leicester and could be an option.
But what England need most is some shape and direction, a rallying point around whom they can base their game and that is why, unfashionable though it may be, I would support a recall for Mike Tindall for the rather ineffectual Mathew Tait. England need someone like Tindall in the wider channels, a physical specimen who can aggressively cross the gain line and provide some much needed shape as opposed to the current approach of shifting the ball rather slowly up and down the line waiting for someone else to do something inspirational or, more likely, knock it on or get turned over. They have rarely got behind the defence, as can be seen by the paucity of the line break and opposition missed tackle stats.
The inclusion of Tindall will allow those around him to play and create considerably more space for the wide men. It will keep the defence honest. It would not be purely a measure to combat Matthieu Bastereaud, although it would have that benefit. Given how hard England have found it to break down Scotland and Italy, they need to change something if they are to have any joy against the best defence in the championship.
So, in the certain knowledge that the final product will look nothing like this, my England XV to play France would be:
15. Ben Foden
14. Mark Cueto
13. Mike Tindall
12. Riki Flutey
11. Chris Ashton
10. Shane Geraghty
9. Danny Care
1. Tim Payne (for wont of any alternatives)
2. Dylan Hartley
3. Dan Cole
4. Courtney Lawes / Simon Shaw
5. Tom Croft
6. James Haskell
7. Lewis Moody
8. Nick Easter
What are your thoughts?