Exorcising the Matfield demons: Six Nations 2008

Victor Matfield

Despite the fact 2 full weeks have passed since the Rugby World Cup, I’m sure I’m not alone in lacking the ability to focus on anything beyond the realms of rugby.

Work; responsibilities; relationships; friendships; the ability to socialise without occasionally drifting off; staring into the swirling depths of a pint glass and reliving Mathew Tait’s swerving break that almost…almost took himself and England to ultimate glory.

I find myself waking up in the middle of the night covered in sweat, haunted by the image of Victor Matfield prowling around my bed, English blood dripping from his drooling mouth. I wake up from day-dreams at my desk, patting the keyboard having been imagining myself as Josh Lewsey, consoling Damien Traille on his slip-up with a gentle, comforting head-tap: “There there Damo”.

It took me 3 years to move on from the emotional Himilayas of the RWC ’03 where England finally scaled their Everest (the 4th year was spent looking forward to RWC ’07) so I think I’m doing ok at the moment.

So in self-proscribed treatment, the only remedy I can contemplate is to look forward to the 6 Nations. The Class of ’07 were undoubtedly warriors of the utmost ability and tactical awareness. When heading into battle, they followed the game plan laid out by Master-Warrior Sun Tzu in the 5th Century BC: “Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. Feign disorder, and crush him”.

However, they must now lay down a new battle-plan, drawn up by General Ashton. Ashton (should he remain head coach) now has the opportunity and time to lay his stamp on the England team and mould them into a cohesive unit based on a solid front five, flanked by the attacking flair of the hoards of talented youngsters coming through the ranks. Contrary to the prattlings of people like Stuart ‘Tellytubby’ Barnes, Ashton should retain a core of experienced players whilst bringing in new blood. A winning team is a developing team, and what England don’t need is a team comprising of 15 new caps being thumped 50-0 by Scotland.

I therefore propose my team for the 6 Nations:

1. Phil Vickery (Capt)

Leading England from the front, he still retains enough of his Raging Bull characteristics, with the solidity and power to act as a rock in the scrum.

2. Dylan Hartley

Exciting player, who although plying his trade in Division 1 at the moment with Northampton, is surely the future for England. Regan misses out after a valiant World Cup, but entering his twilight years and after faltering line-out displays, it is time to bring in the new guard.

3. Andrew Sheridan

England’s player of the tournament in the World Cup. Scary. Mightily scary.

4. Simon Shaw

England’s second-best player of the tournament. He showed he has the skills of a back to match his physical stature, and despite being 34yrs of age, he is currently by far the best lock in England.

5. Tom Palmer

Has been unlucky in recent years. Was given a chance in 2007 Internationals, and I thought he was unlucky to be dropped so unceremoniously. Kay & Borthwick nearly there, but lacking their edge of old.

6. Lewis Moody

Let’s face it, he’s a 6 not a 7. Let’s keep him there and see how many times the nutter can knock himself out while playing on the blind side. Corry has never been dynamic or consistent enough to warrant an England place (be it at 5,6,7 or 8!) and with a change of outlook he should step aside as nobly as Andy Robinson didn’t.

7. Tom Rees

How he offended Ashton so much to keep him out of the World Cup altogether (once he recovered from injury) is anyone’s guess. Was broadly regarded as England’s most exciting and dangerous prospect at the start of the tournament, he will soon cement his place in the number 7 shirt for years to come.

8. James Haskell

Again, another astounding choice to send Haskell home from the final squad cut. Has been in imperious domestic form for Wasps and with Haskell and Moody, will form a formidable back row for the long-term. Easter did his job well over the last year and has bags of ball-handling skills, but he knows deep down that he would enjoy playing for a pub team more, and is not England’s answer in this professional era of athletes.

9. Harry Ellis (pending fitness)

A major blow to England’s pre-tournament hopes, once back on form following major knee surgery he should come back bigger and better, ready to control the scrum from the base and get the fleet-footed backs on the move.

10. Jonny Wilkinson

Stuart Barnes claiming Wilkinson did nothing in the World Cup?? Did he not see the tackle that took Fabien Pelous out of the semi against France? Did he not see the 40m drop-goal that took the game beyond the French? No he didn’t get the back line moving, but then again (a) that wasn’t England’s game plan, and (b) he no longer has the battering ram outside him that is Mike Tindall, nor the magician that is Will Greenwood. It was the deficiencies in the centre that hindered Wilkinson, not his own God-blessed talent.

11. David Strettle

Yet another cruel blow for England with his pre-tournament injury. Showed his class in the 2007 6 Nations and is a bright spark for the future with the deadly finishing skills of a Cobra.

12. Ollie Smith

He has lacked the consistency to warrant him a regular England place in the past, but has some solid experience under his belt and is ready to demonstrate his undeniable talent, step, and skill on the International stage.

13. Dan Hipkiss

Had a very commendable World Cup, and was unlucky to miss out on a starting spot in the Final. He has everything required: pace, power, good hands, and a step to wrong-foot defences. Together with Smith, should form a new-look, dangerous England mid-field.

14. Paul Sackey

Showed in the Semi and Final that he has grown of age, nullifying the threat of Habana and demonstrating his defensive qualities that have developed to sit alongside his attacking pace. Needs to become more dynamic over the first 5 metres to work his way out of tight spaces, but give him a free run to the line and he’ll beat almost anyone.

15. Mathew Tait

Finally we can say ‘what a player’. We witnessed his coming of age in the Final, where he was simply awesome. Having cut South Africa’s midfield to shreds (apart from that prowling beast, Matfield) he switched to full-back and showed this is the position for him for the future. With the retirement of Robinson (ego te salute) he is England’s best broken-field runner, with the boot to boom his way out of trouble if required. A truly exciting prospect.


Matt Stevens – unlucky to miss out on a starting spot, but a good impact player. His time will come, probably in the next couple of years, when Vickery retires.

Lee Mears – not an ideal choice, but adds dynamism and impact from the bench. A weak position for England at the moment.

James Forrester – a player out of the Haskell mould. He has been on the fringes of England thoughts over the past few years, but deserves the chance to show how he has grown over the past two years.

Andy Gomersall – a real ‘boys-own’ personal story, he carried England through the Quarter-final. Adds a cool head and control when needed off the bench.

Lesley Vainikolo – if England aren’t quick to snap him up he could be playing for Samoa. Admittedly he is yet to prove himself, but 5 tries on debut against Leeds certainly demands a few second glances. Should be included just to scare the opposition when warming up.

Toby Flood – has shown patches of being an incredibly talented player, both consistently for Newcastle, and when given his time for England. Is a player that needs to be given time and experience to develop within his comfort zone, which is ideal whilst being understudy to Wilkinson.

Nick Abendanon – almost made a cameo in the squad for the Final, and despite being dropped following the warm-up games, he is certainly another youngster that will force his way into contention over the next few years.

Ok, so I know I’m one forward short on the bench, but being a back I’m too excited about the talent there, to include another hairy brute.

Please add your comments and opinions. And please pass on any tips for how to carry out exorcisms of Victor Matfield ghosts.

By Justin Aylward

7 thoughts on “Exorcising the Matfield demons: Six Nations 2008

  1. Completely disagree with Ollie Smith – I think he’s missed his chance.

    I’d put Flood in there with Mike Tindall coming onto the bench – the Newcastle backs combo of Wilkinson, Flood and Tait should be the fulcrum of the team for the next 4 years.

    Also not sure about Palmer and Shaw is getting on a bit. I’d go with Shaw and Borthwick, grooming the latter to take on Ben Kay’s role as ‘lineout captain’!

    No Andy Farrell then?

  2. Ollie Smith is a 13 anyway, definitely not a 12 and I agree that he’s missed his chance. With Mauger arriving ad Hipkiss he won’t even get in the Leicester team. I’d probably go with Flood at 12 although still not 100% convinced about his defence. Hipkiss at 12 (where he has played a bit) and Tait at 13 is an option but means there’s no 2nd kicker.

    In the short term I’d have Lewsey in there on the wing (when fit) as I don’t think it pays to have too much inexperience too quickly, especially in the form of a brand new back 3.

    Agree with Shaw and Palmer in the row. I am yet to figure out precisely what it is Borthwick actually does on a rugby field, wouldn’t have him anywhere near.

  3. Bugger – forgot about Lewsey (how, seeing as I day-dream about the guy I don’t know!). I’d put him in for Sackey, as he’s rediscovered some of his best form before the unlucky injury in the Semi.

    I still think Smith has something to offer. Putting him at 12 would make him use his creativity and distribution to release those outside him, whilst offering a real threat to hold the opposition mid-field. He’s also more solid in defence than his earlier days, and with Mauger competing for his place he’s going to be pushed to his best and will learn a great deal from the New Zealander.

  4. Good crack Justin, didn’t realise you knew what was going on in the forwards. However…Stevens for Vickery. Fair enough Vickery starting when picked as captain, but Stevens played better in the World Cup – fact.

    Tom Croft from Leicester should be on the bench (to make up the four forwards!). He gassed the NZ Maoris in the Churchill Cup final for the winning try and looks a great prospect.

    Good back row and half backs. I’d go with Tait at 15 and Hipkiss at 13 too.

    However, I’d have the Gloucester trio of Simpson-Daniel, Allen and Vainikolo all starting. Allen deserves a run in the side (in a similar way that Tait has) and has a lot of potential. Vainikolo looks like he could be phenomenal and now’s the time to find out. As for Simpson-Daniel, I am constantly amazed that he gets over-looked. OK his defence is shaky now and again, but his attacking skills are second to none and are just what England have been missing. He had 20mins for England against South Africa in the summer and scored one try and made one clean break!

    Anyway, there’s my tuppence worth. Expecting banter for the Simpson-Daniel comments…

  5. Good side. Agree with Kemlo about Anthony Allen and Sinbad. Allen is back on form for Glos and I’d hate to see him slip in to the “picked once by Robinson far too young then dropped after one mistake” category, which Tait so nearly fell into!

    Sinbad’s also been on great form (admittedly in a weakened Premiership for most of the season to date) and with Jason Robinson gone we could do with an unpredictable game-breaker again.

    Have to agree about Ollie Smith having missed his chance, but he’s such a great player on form that I’d love to see him prove me wrong.

    If Ollie Smith has missed his chance though, Forrester must surely fall in to that category. He’s a bit lightweight for my liking, and though a good ball carrier, he seems a bit scared of contact. That said, I do recall saying the same about a young Dallaglio, but I’m still not convinced.

    I’d like to see Cipriani start to figure in the squad too, because although he’s very young now, I think he could be a great player by 2011. He’s a good kicker and could cover at 10 or 15.

    Doesn’t all this just remind you how many good players we’ve got and wonder if we might have retained the WWE Cup easily with some better planning?

    Hope this has been good group therapy for you Justin and that the sweaty dreams of Victor Matfield have ceased!

  6. Good squad, not sure about Vainikolo yet. I say give him a full season at Glos to a)really prove his union ability (especially in the Heineken Cup) and b)prove his desire to play international rugby union.
    I thought Karl Pryce was going to be amazing then realised he’d come over to union chasing the wedge and isn’t too bothered about progressing.
    I’ve been hugely impressed with Northampton’s league-convert full-back Chris Ashton. I think he should be part of the elite training sqaud at least.

  7. A lot of people seem to be saying great things about Chris Ashton don’t they? Good to see a league convert doing a good job again.

    It always amuses me how ex-league players give essentially the same interview when they move over – goes kind of like this: “I just needed a new challenge, blah blah blah blah, achieved all I can in league, blah blah blah blah, it’s nothing to do with the money”.

    Speaking of ex-leaguers, did anyone see The Rugby Club on Sky the other week when they interviewed Glen Jackson at the Sarries training ground? As they interviewed him you could see Faz in the background tucking in to what looked like a fry up, which explains his pace!

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