Stuart Lancaster has a fair few selection headaches as we edge ever closer to the first Autumn International at Twickenham in a little under two weeks’ time, but perhaps none is as difficult as selecting his captain. He is expected to announce his decision tomorrow.
The two frontrunners are the incumbent from England’s tour to Argentina, Tom Wood, and the man who has, by and large, done a stirling job for the past couple of years, Chris Robshaw. Geoff Parling of Leicester is another popular option, but it is more likely to be one of the two back-rowers who have experience of the role already.
Wood, of Northampton, has been in excellent form this season and did a brilliant job in Argentina, presenting Lancaster with not only a selection dilemma in terms of the make-up of his back-row, but also in terms of who wears the captaincy armband.
Robshaw has experienced a whirlwind first year in the job, including the high of inflicting New Zealand’s first defeat in 20 games (and only one since then), and the low of that crushing 30-3 defeat to Wales in Cardiff. It is easy to forget that he still only has 19 international caps, and had a solitary one when he was named captain in the first place. The maturity he showed in taking on the captaincy mantle while still so inexperienced was admirable.
Currently, however, one of the biggest issues people seem to have with Robshaw being named as captain is that, if everyone were fit, would he make the team?
This argument seems to centre on the issue of his not being a ‘genuine’ openside, but that only applies if you have a particularly short memory. True, in Cardiff in March England were obliterated by a back-row that was playing on another level. That was, however, a special day, and a performance and intensity level the Welsh will be unlikely to replicate until… well, until they face England again this Six Nations, probably.
People forget that a few months previously, a team and back-row led by Robshaw had done a similar demolition job on a New Zealand side that boasted the best breakdown operator in the world in Richie McCaw, and his able deputies Kieran Read and Liam Messam. That day the England back-row worked in tandem to great effect.
The difference between that England and the one that went down in Wales was the balance of their loose trio – the experiment of Tom Wood at no.8 was not one that even remotely worked. With Morgan or Vunipola there this autumn, there is the chance for Wood to shift back to his more natural blindside role, and Robshaw to play at no.7. Both players fall into the ‘6-and-a-half’ category, neither pure blindsides nor opensides, but in combination they fulfil all the duties of a ‘natural’ or ‘genuine’ openside, and a lot more.
Matt Kvesic’s form has stalled behind a stuttering Gloucester pack and Tom Croft is injured, which makes things in terms of selection a lot simpler. Wood and Robshaw is the right combination for England, but of course it doesn’t really solve the captaincy dilemma. It would be incredibly harsh to take it away from Robshaw after what has been, on the whole, a very successful tenure. Along with Lancaster he has instilled a ‘culture’ (that buzzword that always crops up in these discussions) that has seen England go from a group defined by PR-disasters like drink-driving, dwarf-throwing and ferry-jumping, to become a mature group of players.
We should not forget, though, that originally Lancaster wanted to make Wood his captain, only for a long-term injury to scupper that plan. Of course, Robshaw has done such a fine job in his stead that to call him a ‘stop-gap’ would be doing a gross disservice to the man. It does, however, muddy the waters further. Over to you, Stuart.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images