Rumours of the demise of English back play have been greatly exaggerated. That is the conclusion which can be reached after the Heineken Cup offered up yet another mouth-watering weekend of action.
After seeing the stuttering, deep-lying, uninspired displays by England’s backs for much of the World Cup, it was heartening and thrilling to see the performance of Gloucester on Friday, albeit tempered with a degree of frustration at what might have been.
But what a display it was and it showed that if the necessary structures are in place and the tactics allow, England have the backs to match anyone in the world. Two of the best performances of the weekend, in very different ways, came from Wasps and Gloucester. The two clubs between them had 12 English-qualified backs in their starting line-ups, the exceptions being the two scrum halves. Of these players, only one made it into the World Cup squad for a variety of reasons. Therefore add in the likes of Wilkinson, Lewsey, Tait, Hipkiss, Cueto, Barkley and Flood, not to mention other absentees in the form of Hodgson, Ellis and Strettle and we are suddenly staring at an embarrassment of riches.
The question then, is how to get them playing test rugby effectively. Gloucester provided the blueprint on Friday evening. Ryan Lamb gave a sparkling performance at fly half, the basis of which was playing flat, right on the gain line. His timing of the pass was exemplary, delaying the offload long enough for gaps to open up for the runners. This gave the likes of Mike Tindall and Peter Buxton the opportunity to come from deep, take the ball at a rate of knots and run at weak arms, creating the opportunity for a break, an offload or, at the very least, a gain of a couple of precious metres. Rory Lawson’s passing gave Lamb the opportunity to play in this way as he invited his half-back partner on to the ball with flat distribution.
England are surely better off for fly halves than they have ever been. They have no fewer than 6 who, to a greater or lesser extent, could make an impact at international level: Jonny Wilkinson, Charlie Hodgson and Olly Barkley, along with the young tyros, Ryan Lamb, Danny Cipriani and Shane Geraghty. Hodgson, Lamb and Cipriani all won man of the match awards at the weekend, Barkley kicked Bath to victory and the other two did not play.
Notably, five of these players play flat, are almost invariably to be found at first receiver and interest the defence with their individual attacking threat while also playing others into space. The exception is Jonny. He is rarely at first receiver in open play and this causes problems for the shape and structure of the attacking team. Gloucester’s attack was shaped by and around Lamb, Wasps’ around Cipriani, Sale’s around Hodgson. Wilkinson does not play like that and therefore the launchpad for the outside backs is absent. Yet he has something unique and intangible as seen at the World Cup in that he brings a confidence and presence into the team which is so valuable.
Is it time then to move Jonny out one to inside centre? This has been suggested many times of late. He is a player you really can’t afford to leave out but the presence of his peerless rugby brain and influence outside would give the fly half complete licence to play his game knowing there is someone to take the pressure off. At fly half, Wilkinson himself is far more comfortable with another orchestrator such as Mike Catt outside him. Can he now grow into that role himself, helping along the young playmaker inside him? I am not necessarily saying this is the answer, but it illustrates the options at England’s disposal.
Filling the 12 shirt remains the most vexed question for England. Along with Neil Back, Will Greenwood has proved the hardest of England’s World Cup winners to replace in pure playing terms. Besides Wilkinson, the main options appear to be Flood, Barkley and Anthony Allen. Yet they all remain unconvincing in defence and possibly do not offer enough in attack to compensate for this. The influence of the Southern Hemisphere has created confusion in this position because of the fundamentally different ways in which it is perceived either side of the equator. The very fact that the Kiwis call the position ‘Second Five Eighth’ shows they regard the player as an auxiliary fly half rather than the traditional English bosh-merchant. Players like Dan Carter and Luke Macalister have served their apprenticeship in the centre before stepping inside. Most teams now seem to be moving in this direction and it is the right way to go as it provides two decision-makers rather than one..
But England, after the failure of Farrell to make a mark, lack a player with the physical presence and the skill and vision to perform the role really effectively. Or do they? Anyone who saw Wasps v Munster on Saturday should rejoice at the fact that Riki Flutey is qualified to play for England. He has had a slow start at Wasps but in Coventry began to show some of the form of last season at London Irish. Kiwi or not, he has the skills to make a serious mark in that position. Yet more options emerge for the England backline.
At Ravenhill, Mike Tindall ran on to Lamb’s pinpoint passes with greater conviction than he has shown for a long time and showed how effective he can be. He still lacks vision but given the platform and the right kind of ball, he can cause serious problems and can rival Dan Hipkiss, James Simpson-Daniel and Mathew Tait for the 13 shirt. Tindall’s problem in international terms is the lack of quality English inside centres as he cannot play next to another big man, but with two playmakers inside him he can cause some damage. His weakness is what he does once he has made yards and he may not be the man to launch the back three. I would like to see Hipkiss there as he is strong, has excellent feet and moves defenders. Tait at full back would be able to utilise the space created with his pace and running lines. Tindall showed however that he has some international rugby in him yet.
With Gloucester having sucked players in, space was created for the likes of Balshaw, Simpson-Daniel and Vainokolo to make hay out wide. If someone could imbue Balshaw with a little more bravery when things are not going his way, he could have so much to offer the national team. I fear that this is a quality that is almost impossible to coach however. Simpson-Daniel though, has been a victim of the great ailment of the English coaching set-up since 2003 – the tendency to focus on players’ weaknesses rather than their strengths. Simpson-Daniel was perceived as a weak tackler so his blistering attacking running, silky handling skills and eye for a gap were ignored. Injuries did not help but it is criminal that he only has 10 caps.
The same attitude has stalled the international aspirations of James Forrester, Simon Shaw, Tom Varndell and many others. Weaknesses can be addressed – that is how a coach should earn his corn, but you cannot coach flair and talent. Instead they should be harnessed to maximum effect. Jonah Lomu was weak when kicks were put behind him but he was reasonably useful with ball in hand. Competition out wide is fierce, but Simpson-Daniel is a player England cannot afford to waste. The same goes for Vainokolo who should be being harassed by the powers that be in the national set up until he feels like taking his phone off the hook.
Scrum-half and full back remain the positions with the fewest options but with Matt Burke’s injury up at Newcastle, one would hope that Mathew Tait can gain some valuable experience at 15 which he can carry on to the international stage. The key though, is the way in which England choose to approach their back play. Any of the players mentioned in this article have plenty to offer given the right game plan. Gone, hopefully, are the days when players were picked on the grounds that they were solid if uninspiring. And forget the fact that expansive rugby did not work in the latter stages of the World Cup. The tournament was won by the team which had the most different ways in which to win a game.
England know how to graft their way to victory, but they have enough firepower in their armoury to be able to blow teams off the park with their back line as well. They also have a coach in Brian Ashton (please keep him involved, even if not as head coach) who 18 months ago managed to turn a Bath backline with about as much cutting edge as a blancmange into a free-scoring unit. They have a pack which can get them on the front foot. They must therefore take a leaf out of Gloucester’s book and have their fly half flat at first receiver, big men hammering on to cleverly timed passes and the speed merchants in space out wide where they can do most damage. Simple really.
By Stuart Peel