Sir Clive Woodward picked an England backline for the South Africa tests in his Daily Mail column the other day. The world-cup-winning coach opted for: Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Christian Wade or Jack Nowell, Danny Cipriani and Dan Robson.
Based on his Six Nations selections, and considering the injuries to Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph, Eddie Jones’ first-choice backline would be something like: Mike Brown, Jonny May, Ben Te’o, Owen Farrell, Eliot Daly, George Ford and Ben Youngs.
There are two players common to both selections – and only one in the same position. You could also make a case for Woodward’s 50/50 choice of Nowell being a similar probability with Jones as well, but the rest are miles away from being picked for England under the current set up.
It is a bit of a cliché, but they say the hardest part of being a coach is the selection. This is perhaps even more the case with the England national team, given we have the largest player pool in the world. Now the size of the pool certainly doesn’t directly equate to quality – see New Zealand as your counter point – but I would argue it certainly compounds the selection problem. There is always another player, a new exciting talent, the option to cut your losses if someone is out of form rather than persevere. At around 130,000 senior male players, England have a player pool of around 11 times the size of Scotland, six times the size of Wales or five times the size of Ireland’s resources.
I know, I know, next I will be explaining how the RFU’s income is tough on the accountants.
But if we decide Woodward is not being deliberately provocative (after all, it does not make for an exciting column if he says ‘yeh, I’d pick the same team as Eddie’), we then have two world class international coaches picking backlines that are wildly different from each other. No wonder we get selection wrong sometimes.
Now Woodward’s selection is compromised in part by his selection of Chris Ashton – who, while in excellent form having broken the Top 14 scoring record, cannot be selected as he is playing abroad. The same could soon be true of Cipriani, who is leaving Wasps at the end of the season but is yet to confirm where he will be playing next. But let’s leave that ‘playing abroad/no selection’ debate aside for one minute – it was done to death over Steffon Armitage.
Woodward’s is certainly more of a form selection – for example, Cipriani is many pundits’ pick at fly half in the various teams of the season, and Ford has often struggled for both Leicester Tigers and England – while Jones tends to stay loyal to players who served him so well in those previous two record-breaking seasons. Indeed, Woodward went as far as to say ‘it would be an utter disgrace — in fact a tragedy’ if Cipriani doesn’t tour South Africa.
However, Jones recently admitted to Sky Sports that, in retrospect, he might have done things differently during the Six Nations: ‘I think I should have refreshed the side … I should have probably brought some fresh blood in, sharpened things up.’ So, there is certainly the chance we will see a changing of the guard when Jones names his squad for the South Africa tour tomorrow.
Depth needs to be found in certain positions like fullback and scrum half, while some of the forwards need a break. Regardless, for any new blood or returning prodigal sons, a resurgent South Africa on their turf will be a brutal baptism.
Which England coach’s selection do you prefer? Ford or Cipriani, Brown or Goode, Youngs or Robson? Or do you hope someone different is selected to play the Springboks?
How about giving a young star like Marcus Smith or Joe Simmonds a chance, Jason Woodward a run at full back, Henry Slade a go in the centres or bring back some physicality in the form of Manu Tuilagi?
What would be your backline selection for that first test against the Springboks?
By Henry Ker
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images