Crunch time for England's young guns
October 27, 2010
Chris Ashton arrived on the international stage with a bang in June © Getty Images
Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes and Dan Cole - these are the names that need to be on everyone's lips by the end of the autumn internationals if England are going to pose any sort of challenge at the Rugby World Cup next year.
They are already way behind the clock but their summer victory over Australia gave just a glimmer of hope. Now Martin Johnson and his coaching team have to put their faith in the new boys and go for broke.
That doesn't mean playing fast and loose for the sake of it but it does mean playing with speed, ambition and support runners everywhere to take advantage of those precious half breaks. Some people are still advocating caution; arguing that the players named above are still raw, young talents who have still to prove themselves at international level.
Tell that to Australia. They refused to back off and go conservative after being beaten by England and played some marvellous rugby in the Tri-Nations. There were far too many mistakes and at times they were guilty of some bad errors of judgement but they improved hugely as the tournament progressed. I expect them to build on that and announce themselves as a real threat for the World Cup over the next month.
England need to do the same. There are so many international matches during the next 12 months that Foden, Ashton, Youngs and Lawes, with only eight starts between them, can go from being precocious, inexperienced fledglings to seasoned international players. To allow that to happen Johnson has to give them their heads and show faith. It should have happened a year earlier but it was only after that first Test defeat in Australia that he finally accepted it was time to change the old guard. Now he cannot afford to backtrack on that for one moment.
Last weekend his forwards coach, John Wells, was complaining about the perceptions surrounding the England coaching philosophy. "We've always had the phrase 'freedom within structure' - the players have an opportunity to play whatever they see fit,' he said.
Sorry John, you have fooled me - and most of the country - for the past couple of years. We have seen the opposite - a team playing to an outdated structure with absolutely no freedom. It is only this new generation of youngsters who have been able to throw off those shackles and is vital that they are encouraged to continue to express themselves and take chances - just like the Australians.
Continuity is absolutely vital so Johnson should be looking to play the same starting XV against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa if possible. If he does not know what he wants by now the England cause is hopeless. That said there is still a frightening amount of uncertainty surrounding some key selections - by far the most important being outside-half where Johnson still appears to be procrastinating over whether there is life beyond Jonny Wilkinson.
It will be a blessing in disguise if his latest shoulder injury takes him out of the equation because England have to move on if they are going to give themselves the sort of attacking options they will need to beat New Zealand and Australia.
Toby Flood is certainly not the finished article but the move to Leicester has certainly been beneficial and he looks far more incisive and confident. His kicking game is not nearly as good as Wilkinson's but the balance has shifted away from kicking in international rugby and (unlike Jonny) he does have the pace to worry defences in broken play. It is no longer good enough for the No. 10 just to pull the strings. He is still the main playmaker, of course, but he also needs to be a finisher.
England also have a problem at centre. Is Mike Tindall too old? I'm not sure but we'll certainly know by the end of November - England need his steadying presence because nobody else has stepped up to the plate. This is the one area where they will not have their best combination sorted until the Six Nations. Is Olly Barkley yet again flattering to deceive? Was Riki Flutey just a one season wonder? We'll see.
Finally, I was horrified to see Nick Easter being touted as a possible England captain. I admire what he does week in week out in the Premiership but international rugby is played at higher tempo and he simply does not have the pace to stay in the game. The next month is absolutely crucial. New Zealand are at the top of their game, Australia have improved immeasurably since England beat them and South Africa have the physical presence to upset anybody if they are allowed to do so.
November really is the defining month for the Johnson regime. So far he has been guilty of doing too little but it may not be too late if England really are committed to change. If they continue to dither between the old and the new it could be a torrid few weeks - three bad defeats and his reputation will be in tatters.
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