In what could be shaping up to be a memorable season for England, one aspect which has been noticeable is the performances of the newbies, the debutants. In the past two weeks Tom Wood and Alex Corbisiero have turned in highly accomplished performances which could have the more established Andrew Sheridans and Tom Crofts of this world looking over their shoulders.
This is key for a number of reasons. Primarily it is obvious that the more good players you have, the better and England are developing a healthy depth in their squad. They have now have players who can slot in to almost any position without any real detriment to the team. For a contrast it is worth looking at Wales for whom James Hook has been shifted all over the place because the back-ups were not perceived to be good enough. They were also on the verge of moving Jamie Roberts, a Lions centre, on to the wing had Morgan Stoddart failed his fitness test. There are huge benefits to being able to just slot in the next cab off the rank with minimal disruption to the team.
More significantly though, the performances of players new to the fold are a useful barometer for the health of a team and the environment in which it is functioning. If a debutant arrives and slots seamlessly into a team while still playing his natural game, it tells you as much about the team as it does about that individual player. Both Wood and Corbisiero performed admirably, as Youngs, Ashton, Lawes, Attwood and others have over the past 12 months. If a player is prepared to come in and try things and manages to not only play as he has for his club but elevate it to a higher level, it is a good indication that he has taken the field with confidence and a clear head.
The contrast with many of England’s debutants in recent years is stark. We have talked before on this blog about the number of England players in recent years who have 10 to 20 caps to their name and have made little or no impact. The likes of Tim Payne, George Chuter, Louis Deacon, Shaun Perry, Dan Hipkiss and Mathew Tait. They all came in and performed as players prohibited, shadows of the players whose club form had earned them the shot in the first place. It is striking how many players make successful debuts coming into a settled team and how few do so when there is little stability.
Another reason the debutants have succeeded is that the coaches have become much better at identifying those who are ready for the international fray and sticking with them. Nobody will forget the humiliation suffered by Tait at the hands of Gavin Henson on his debut and it is arguable that the player’s career suffered permanent damage as a result. Anthony Allen and Tom Varndell are other players who were done no favours by being brought into a losing environment when they had only a handful of Premiership appearances to their name and then discarded before they had a chance to draw on the experience they were gathering.
Martin Johnson has traditionally erred on the side of caution in matters of selection. It should not be forgotten that he only turned to Foden, Ashton, Youngs, Lawes and Flood reluctantly and as a last resort, weeks after most of the rugby public had been screaming for their inclusion. He got lucky in that respect. However he has learned his lesson and had no qualms about throwing in Wood and Corbisiero. Johnson judged that they were ready and mature enough and acted accordingly.
Johnson and his coaches deserve credit for being honest enough to admit, albeit not publically, that they were on a road to nowhere eight months ago. They loosened the shackles, encouraged a more player-led environment (always the more successful formula than coach-led) and brought some fun back into the game. That flexibility has been key in the creation of the current team environment and the lack of it in the past was a major contributor to the inhibited, fearful way in which England had played the game.
In one respect though, Johnson has been fortunate. It is fascinating and encouraging that the standard-bearers for the new optimistic, ambitious England include players who had not made their debuts a year ago. Youngs and Ashton in particular have brought a breath of fresh air in with them and the change in style and atmosphere dates almost precisely from their introduction. Rare is the player who can come into a team and change the whole dynamic from minute one. Youngs, and to a lesser extent Ashton, Foden and Lawes, have done just that.
It bodes extremely well for the future that these young players are eager to bend the team to their will and are becoming leaders in the process. Suddenly the likes of Hartley, Palmer and Flood, inconspicuous in their test careers to date, are emerging as world class talents and leaders, and the likes of Wood and Corbisiero can come into the team and see players of similar age and experience calling the shots and enjoying doing so.
The England camp is back to being something everybody wants to be a part of rather than a place to be intimidated. This will stand them in good stead in the difficult times which will inevitably occur at some stage. When new players come in and slip seamlessly in, you know that you are doing plenty of things right.
By Stuart Peel