England, conservative, boring old England, have an exciting, dangerous new weapon. Sadly, like a caveman presented with an AK47 and a magazine full of ammunition, conservative, boring old England have no idea how to use it. They made a promising start in fathoming out this problem; the finger twitched for a while in the general vicinity of the trigger, but then they thought better of it and found themselves once again staring at it in confusion. England need to figure out how to fire this weapon soon before the gun goes rusty and the powder goes damp.
The weapon’s name, in case you hadn’t guessed, is Lesley Vainikolo. The injury to David Strettle against Wales could prove to have done long-term damage to England. This is not because it was a setback for a highly promising young winger, a player who should win many, many caps in years to come. It is because it led England to change the way in which they use Vainikolo; they removed their finger from the trigger.
Vainikolo the impact sub was loaded and ready to go, primed to unleash fury on tiring opponents as matches entered their final quarter. That was the role in which England were preparing to use him and think of the havoc he could have wrought. Unfortunately, he had to come on early when Strettle got injured but in the following games, he should have resumed his role from the bench.
This would not have been relegation. In the modern game of 22-man rugby, it would have been simply retaining him in the role to which he is best suited and in which his abilities could cause the most impact. Vainikolo was not on the bench for that first game because he was the third best winger in the country. He was on the bench because he was the one who could cause the most damage late in the game. Someone with a more rounded game, and more experience of the way a game of rugby union unfolds should have been brought in to start. Lewsey, Simpson-Daniel, Tait, Varndell, Cueto – it’s not as though England are short of options in that position.
Vainikolo has shown some deft touches and has made an impact when he has got the ball in his hands. But there are two forces which mean that, in a starting role, this does not happen very often. First is the way England play, second is Vainikolo’s work rate. Currently, England are playing a conservative brand of rugby. They are not using their backs very much and when they try to they are struggling to give them the right kind of ball. Playing like that, if you have a winger who can wreak havoc with ball in hand, you need him to come looking for it in open play. For whatever reason, Big Les does not do this, whether it be fitness, an inability to read the game or simply that England’s approach does not allow for it.
The combination of the way the team play, and the way the man himself plays, has conspired to dilute Vainikolo’s impact. He has soft hands, good skills and is almost unstoppable one-on-one in a bit of space, especially against a tiring opponent. It is not merely that he is hard to stop, but that his presence creates space for others. England can overcome the weaknesses of the player and their own inability to use him by returning him to the bench. They should then bring him on late with instructions to work his socks off for the last 20-30 mins and bellow at those inside him to get him the ball.
England need to see the Volcano erupt in the final two games. The way to do this is to let him build to boiling point and then, when the time comes, let him loose and watch the sparks fly.
by Stuart Peel