Give the kids a chance
January 5, 2010
Should England turn to the prolific Chris Ashton? © Getty Images
It doesn't pay to be bashful when you a reporter, though I almost I felt a tinge of red in the cheeks when pitching up to Wasps recently with the intention of writing a piece about Danny Cipriani. Oh no, not more 'Celebriani', said a small voice inside me, but I decided it was okay if the resulting article included some sort of wider debate about the fly-half position or England selection, or perhaps curly hair and why Danny no longer wears a scrum cap.
With a conscience sponged quickly clean I got into a conversation with Wasps' director of rugby Tony Hanks who, bless his heart, avoided sighing and saying "Oh no, not more 'Celebriani'" and happily chatted for 20 minutes about his fly-half and sometime fullback. Or is it the other way around?
Anyway, one of the many points which came up is the age-old problem for national selectors, which is when to pick new players and how long to persist with them. With 20 months to go before the 2011 World Cup - less than that, if we are talking about the selection of a squad to travel to New Zealand - Martin Johnson's need to decide on a first-choice England XV and get them playing together grows ever more urgent.
Dave Walder, the 31-year-old who has been in good form for Wasps of late, chipped in to say that any England fly-half needs a sequence of three or four matches at least to get to know the team, and the team to know him. "I've been playing well [for Wasps] because I knew I had a run in the team," Walder said. "It gives me a chance to get the rhythm of the team. They know what I'm going to do and I know what they're going to do. Fly-half, scrum-half and hooker are three positions where you need that. There's no benefit in putting a guy in [for England] for one game."
Such a run of matches for England would probably mean giving a No.10 a blank cheque for an autumn series, a Six Nations Championship or a summer tour. Italy and Nick Mallett did it with Andrea Masi in the 2008 Six Nations, and judged the experiment to have failed. Johnson deals with much greater public expectation than Mallett but he tried the same with Cipriani in England's autumn 2008 series, before dropping the then 21-year-old for the final match.
The argument is open as to whether Cipriani was found wanting against the world's best, was unfit after an ankle injury or carried the can for a new-look team struggling to bed in. During the Six Nations earlier in 2008 Johnson's predecessor, Brian Ashton, dithered too long in my opinion over replacing Jonny Wilkinson with an in-form Cipriani. But there you go - at the outset of the Championship it was probably Ashton's view that Wilkinson would play through. Theory and practice have a habit of diverging and that's why coaches are paid well and develop grey hair at a rate of knots.
So here we go again. With a Six Nations squad to be named by England on January 13 there are probably three fly-half slots available and several youngsters (or not-so-young international novices) in other positions are hoping their time has come.
Injuries have stymied Johnson to a degree and results have been poor. One of the fiercest debates in English rugby circles is whether Johnson and his coaches are too intolerant of newbies' mistakes. I know from talking to them that they are mindful of introducing youngsters gently to what they regard as the much quicker and tactically more demanding international game.
Too mindful and too nervous? That's the question, and I think the answer is somewhere between Johnson's yearning for stabliity - some would deride it as conservatism - and the give-it-a-lash merchants who would have a different XV on the field in every match.
Taking the fly-half first, Toby Flood missed the last autumn series but he finished the 2009 Six Nations well, and his fight for selection with Wilkinson is a test of Johnson's judgement and game plan. I'd go with Flood - he kicks well and is younger, braver and quicker than Wilkinson who has been through so many injuries and, to my eye, has slowed in thought and deed in his latest comeback with Toulon. When Johnson loyally describes Jonny as "world class" I am not sure it is accurate any more. Cipriani should be made to wait and ignore the many articles about him in the media.
As to the fringe candidates, there is ample room for possible newcomers because Johnson has too few mainstays for his or anyone else's liking. Fitness allowing, he has probably inked in Delon Armitage, Riki Flutey, Flood or Wilkinson, Lewis Moody, Steve Borthwick and, er, that could be it. Possibly Simon Shaw and Nick Easter too although the latter's absence injured in the autumn allowed James Haskell to show the value of more pace from the base of the scrum. But Easter coughs up the ball less than Haskell.
Elsewhere, Johnson has damned-if-you-do-or-don't choices all over the place. Stick with Mark Cueto or give the exciting Chris Ashton a go? Revert to Mike Tindall or Dan Hipkiss, or try Dom Waldouck, who has added muscle to his instinctive talent. Jon Golding over Tim Payne, Dylan Hartley over Lee Mears, Dan Cole over Davey Wilson, Courtney Lawes over (deep breath) Borthwick?
Hanks pointed out to me that Michael Jones and Jonah Lomu performed spiffingly in World Cups despite a limited international apprenticeship and of course there is the great example of Australia's Jason Little and Tim Horan finding their feet not long after they were out of nappies. They were, I think we can all agree, exceptions to the rule. Johnson still has time to give some fresh-faced players a go, but it is rapidly running out.