First up, let me start by saying this is not a criticism of Stuart Lancaster or that the direction that England are moving in as a team. The new cultures and philosophies implemented by Lancaster have helped turn England from perennial underachievers into a good side, who are developing towards being a very good side. The goal should surely be higher than that though, and I question whether the current formation of England’s back row can achieve those lofty aspirations.
Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola form a very competent back row, one that many international sides would love to have, but I don’t think it has the balance that some would have you believe. I should have perhaps refaced that statement by acknowledging that I’m of the school of thought that a back row should consist of a workhorse tackler, a fleet jackal and a powerful carrier, and for me England don’t currently have that.
Sure, be flexible for world class talents, but at the moment England are relying on the likes of Joe Launchbury and Dan Cole to make the difference for them at the breakdown, and that’s a risky scenario heading towards a World Cup. Robshaw is an exquisite player and captain, but he is not a natural seven, illustrated by the fact he regularly arrives first at the breakdown for England, but after getting his hands on the ball, often struggles to stay on his feet when the opposition arrives.
Enter, stage right, Steffon Armitage. The former London Irish man was at his sensational best for Toulon against Leinster, and had the destructive force of a tornado at the breakdown. I’ve called Armitage the best breakdown forward in the northern hemisphere for some time now, but with Richie McCaw on the decline, David Pocock struggling to stay fit, and Michael Hooper in solid, if not spectacular form, I’d go as far to say there’s no one better in the world than him right now.
Criticisms that he lacks the work rate for international rugby are tired, and surely can’t be being made by anyone who has watched him develop as a player over the last few years, whilst suggestions he simply benefits from playing with a team of ‘Galacticos’ in Toulon are also exaggerated, and I’d suggest it’s his hard graft and technique at the breakdown which allow those other stars to shine so brightly. We seem to debate what Armitage could bring to the England team after every Heineken Cup game involving Toulon, but the answer? A hell of a lot.
Enter, stage left, James Haskell. If Armitage is on form the best breakdown forward in the world, then a very strong case can be made that Haskell the best all-round back row in the Aviva Premiership on current form too. London Wasps’ form has taken a significant dip over the last couple of months, but one player in particular has continued to impress, and if it were not for the heroics of Haskell in some of Wasps’ recent games, the score lines could have been far worse for the High Wycombe-based outfit.
The talented back row is playing some of the best rugby of his career, and is well and truly living up to the potential he had when he first burst onto the scene 10 years ago. His versatility would be a huge positive for England, as he can play anywhere in the back row, although is arguably most proficient on the flanks, and he would also add a wealth of experience to a young England team, not least so having played Super Rugby in New Zealand for the Highlanders.
I’m not advocating dropping anyone from England’s current starting back row, but with a home World Cup looming on the horizon, both Armitage and Haskell can add something to the squad which it is currently lacking, and would, for my money, improve England’s chances of winning the tournament dramatically. On club form, you’d be tough pressed to find two more impressive back rows in world rugby right now, and places on England’s tour to New Zealand should be the reward.
I understand Lancaster’s unwillingness to pick a foreign-based player, thus creating a precedent for it in the future, but when it’s a truly world class talent like Armitage, you really can’t afford not to. If Toulon fail to make the Top 14 final, Lancaster must consider bending the rules for Armitage, especially with England potentially bereft of Wood and Vunipola in the first test, if, as the table predicts, Saracens and Northampton are contending for the Premiership trophy. Haskell’s performances meanwhile surely put him above both Tom Johnson and Matt Kvesic in the England pecking order, and make him a prime candidate for at least a spot on the bench in New Zealand this summer.
Both of these players need to be given second chances on the international scene, and if they can replicate their club form on the biggest stage, then England have a truly ferocious back row building for the World Cup. In the run up to the 2003 World Cup, England’s back row was essentially unattainable for the likes of Joe Worsley and Lewis Moody, such was the proficiency and balance that Messrs Hill, Back and Dallaglio offered.
England aren’t there at the moment, and with players likely to be missing at least the first test in New Zealand due to club commitments, this is an opportunity for Lancaster to roll the dice. It’s a low risk and extremely high reward scenario.
I’ll leave you, and Mr Lancaster (on the slim chance he is reading this), with some words of wisdom from one of the most venerable sources I’ve known in my life;
“He who dares, wins.”
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images