Success of new faces an indicator of England’s progress

England Rugby

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

Photo: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images

17 thoughts on “Success of new faces an indicator of England’s progress

  1. Great article Stuart.

    So all we really need to do is find some centres and we’re sorted.

    Incidently, who do we have coming up behind Flood apart from Cipriani?

  2. Chap called Wilkinson at Toulon who isn’t bad.

    Of young guys there’s Owen Farrell and Alex Goode at Sarries. Increasingly feels as though Geraghty won’t make it and don’t think Myler is a test player – for a kicking fly half he has tooo many off days.

    Wilkinson and Hodgson have probably both got another 2 or 3 years in them so don’t think fly half is too much of a concern at the moment.

    You’re right Ben, centre is certainly the problem position.

  3. Thing is, we have lots of options at centre (and good options too), but most don’t fit the “build” for what Johnno and his coaches look for in a centre. They want big, defensive units – where most of younsters coming through aren’t “big units”. I’d quite like to see Brad Barritt be given a few games at 12 to see how he gets on, and then maybe try and bring in someone like George Lowe outside him at 13, but i don’t think thats going to happen.

  4. Owen Farrell and Alex Goode has been an interesting situation at Saracens. Goode the fly half excelling at full back for a season, then putting in some less impressive performances at fly half and in turn being replaced by the inside centre Owen Farrell who has held the shirt ever since. Will be interesting to see where the future lies for both players. Let’s not forget Charlie Hodgson’s heading there next season too!

    George Ford is the young fly half most highly thought of, he’s played for Leicester a few times and is representing England U20s at the age of 17. He’s quite small and does look rather frail but he tackles well and kicks like a seasoned veteran. Attacking-wise he’s very good too.

    Not much in the way of international quality behind Flood & Wilko right now though really.

    As for centres – I’ve got high hopes for a Twelvetrees – Tuilagi partnership serving England well in a few years time.

  5. George Lowe from Harlequins will be an exceptional player in the years to come. The big unit of tuilagi inside him at 12 could be a great combo.

    He has really quick feet and has been easily the best back for quins this season.

  6. Two problems with an otherwise good article…

    “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”

    Would agree with all of that except Tait. True he started slowly but he went on to be a key player in england’s run to the world cup final, and marked out by the South Africans as the only threat in the england team (some South Africans i met were asking why he wasn’t on the lions tour! admittedly they didn’t know club form). Its only injury and being messed around positionally that have resulted in a stalled nternational career.

    “However he has learned his lesson and had no qualms about throwing in Wood and Corbisiero.”

    um not really… he only ‘threw them in’ because of injuries to Croft, Moody and Sheridan… so hes keeping with the same pattern of only including when hes forced to (as you noted correctly with Foden, Ashton, Youngs, Lawes and Flood).

    Otherwise a very good article and I agree fully that it is testament to a stable england that players can step seamlessly in.

  7. Nick – Agree with your criticisms, though the second to an extent was an indicator of Johnson’s changing policy. The cautious Johnson would have thrown in Worsley!

  8. You have to accept that there has been a shift in thinking though Nick. The reluctance to be more experimental at 12 and 13 shows that he’s only half way there. But it’s reasonable to assume that Johnno would not have rolled the dice on players like Corbisiero and Wood 12 months ago.

  9. Tom – completely agree. He could easily have gone with Worsley and then promoted Wilson, who is mainly a tighthead but can play on the loose, to start. I think it’s quite significant that he didn’t.

    Re Tait, he did play well in the World Cup final but to be honest I can hardly remember a single other incident in his international career (apart from his debut obviously). A few cameos on the wing and a half-decent autumn last year but he’s won 30-odd caps. That’s nowhere near good enough. I don’t think he would have been in the Lions squad if they’d doubled it in size to be to be honest. I’ve been a huge supporter of his for years and he may come again (I hope he does, he has so much potential) but his international career overall has been a disappointment. He hasn’t been helped by selection but he just seems mentally quite soft. But my point is that the environment in the England camp at the time was as much to blame. If he came into the side now playing the rugby they are playing it could be a completely different story.

  10. Thats true tom i was fearing a Worsley come back.

    As you say Mat the mid field is an area of weakness that he is persisting with because he can. I quite like Hape tbh but would like to see some real pace at 13 (a 2007 form Tait would do nicely). Admittedly i haven’t seen much club action lately but people seem to be talking up Lowe and John Clarke has been solid for a while now, maybe a bit early for Tuilagi? but i think someone should come in for tins against Scotland at least if not France. If he brings in anyone it’ll be Banahan tho.

  11. sorry stuart i made my last post without reading yours

    i think we’re in agreement about Tait its circumstance (bad team), injury and positional changes (victim of own versatility) that have stalled a potentially great career.

    I didn’t mean to suggest he was near a lions call up. Just that the South Africans i met remembered him very fondly, not only from world cup final but the summer tour the previous summer (in which he made several searing breaks and was virtually the only player to return with enhanced credibility).

  12. I’d love to see Tait back in the fold at some stage but only when he is playing out of his skin for his club and he’s had a pretty average season so now’s not the time. He’s been unfortunate that he moved to Sale at just the wrong time.

    However I can’t help feeling that he’s a bit of a throwback – he’d have been awesome 15-20 years ago, a classic old-style 13, small, quick with a Guscott-style outside break. But the game has moved on, not necessarily for the better in that respect. Physicality is essential, fitness levels higher, defences are so much more organised and space is so hard to find. The skills which got him to where he is are unfortunately not quite as central. Brian O’Driscoll dealt with this problem by almost becoming an extra flanker in defence. Tait has not been quite so successful at grafting additional elements on to his game..

  13. Its true Tait is nowhere near good enough form to warrant a call up at the moment.

    But don’t know if that style of player is completely out dated. For me the form 13 in world rugby over the past year is Conrad Smith, hardly a tank… more of a a classic old-style 13, small, quick with a Guscott-style outside break.

  14. The turnover of players was getting shocking – and that’s even apart from the summer tours. I thought it a real shame that the English management didn’t persist with the likes of Allen and Magnus Lund, didn’t pick Fraser Walter or chose not to use Ayoola Erinle as an impact sub when he was at his absolute monstering peak. I don’t think we would have any more Grand Slams to our name, but I do think we would have been far more competitive, and we wouldn’t have plumbed the depths of the past few years.

    I still think that the responsibility for much of that lies Andy Robinson as manager. I’ve high regard for him as a man and as a coach, and but he struck me as poor and uninspired selector – from identifying JW as his captain whilst injured, to the Tindal- Noone centre pairing, to his unwise handling of debutants (eg Tait at Cardiff, Allen vs the ABs) and failure to settle on a back-row combo and choose a decent 7. For this selectorial reason only, I find this talk of him heading up the next Lions tour extremely unwise.

  15. Would still love to see Tuilagi get a shot at some point before the world cup. He is brilliant and i havent seen him play a bad game for Leicester yet. He would also slot in nicely as he plays already with Food/youngs at club level. Some say it is too early. I disagree. O’Connor has 20 odd caps and is only 20. I am sure Tuilagi will have the same impact on this current England side!!

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