For years it has been the most tedious pub conversation in the land. England’s midfield – why can’t they play together? We have world class players, the best in the world in their positions but the balance isn’t right. Gerrard and Lampard? Gerrard or Lampard?… Etc…etc…ad nauseam. Well England football fans, spare a thought for your rugby equivalents. Our midfield is not so flush either.
We would give anything for a couple of world class operators to be consistently available to us in the midfield area. We have plenty of options but none that really scream out for uncontested selection. At times this can be a great dilemma to have if, from a position of strength, you are having to decide which world class player to leave out. But England have no such luxury. Instead they are scrabbling to find a combination, some continuity, some direction.
The fact is that England do have options in midfield and plenty of them. There is a huge long list of players who have been given a chance, are waiting on the fringes of the side or are injured: Wilkinson, Cipriani, Barkley, Hodgson, Flood, Geraghty, Flutey, Noon, Hipkiss, Tait, Tindall. And Andy Goode of course. They have all had chances, some more than others yet in recent times nobody has really grabbed the key playmaking positions and made them their own.
There are any number of reasons for this. Questions must be asked of a squad environment in which talents such as this consistently fail to spark their team. There has also been inconsistency of selection with very few opportunities for combinations to bed down. The finger could be pointed elsewhere in the team, to the lack of quick ball, the fact that we rarely seem to win the contact these days and that the forwards don’t blast the opposition out of the way to present clean ball to the scrum-half.
But these do not excuse the aimless kicking, the fuzzy decision-making, the almost unfathomable lack of creativity and imagination.
So what of the men who have been chosen to take on Italy, and who logically should take on Wales too? Mike Tindall brings an imposing presence to the team, a rallying point wide out and the ability to put defences on the back foot with explosive power, something which was in short supply in the autumn. He rightly replaces the hard-working, reliable but ultimately limited Jamie Noon. Riki Flutey deserves some more games although we need to see a little more from him than we did in the autumn. In his defence he received some truly horrible ball to deal with and hopefully we will see the cutting lines and footwork which made him the Premiership’s best player last year.
There are no real problems with the centre selection and, injuries or hideous horror shows notwithstanding, I would like to see them there for the bulk of the championship. At fly half, we have Andy Goode. I don’t think anybody honestly saw that coming more than about a week ago. It was widely assumed that he had shuffled off the France to broaden his experience, earn a handy wedge and quietly play out the rest of his career.
How wrong we were, but how surprised when he suddenly popped up in the England team. There is a certain logic to it. He has been playing well in France and, limited though he may be, you know what you are going to get from him. Of the alternatives, Barkley is out of favour, Hodgson has exhausted everyone’s confidence and Cipriani and Flood seem to have been having a competition to see which one can make themselves hardest to select.
But this is the illogical part. Cipriani has been relegated to the Saxons to try to rediscover the spark. This could be seen as good management, taking him out of the spotlight but it will only make the light more blinding when he steps back into it again. He has not been playing well and the rights and wrongs of that decision will be discovered over months and years rather than hours and days.
But Flood would have started had he been fit. He has failed to take control of a single game for Leicester this season and has really struggled of late. Temporarily dropping him like Cipriani would do no good as he does not have any discernible spark to rediscover. Perhaps he is not seen as a long-term contender but as a holding player who can do a job until his rival is ready. But it would defy logic if he is brought back into the team when he recovers fitness.
And what of Geraghty? He appears to be slightly mistrusted by management but when fit he has shown that he may be the most talented of the lot. He has pace, vision, fantastic distribution, stands very flat and plays what he sees rather than by numbers. He also has a bounce and exuberance about him. I would love to have seen him given a start and hope he gets a good crack off the bench.
As it is, we have Goode. It appears clear that England wish to dictate the pace of the match and carry through a gameplan, namely to play no rugby in their own half. Defences won’t fear him but that is not why he is there. Management have set their stall out and shown that control of the game is their main priority and there is no problem with that. I just hope that this is not done to the detriment of using the talent which there undoubtedly is out wide. It is a pragmatic option but having taken it, the management team must stick with it. No more chopping and changing. Whether you agree with his initial selection or not, he must play against Wales and the midfield must get the chance to function as a unit.
by Stuart Peel