Home Nations should shake things up a bit
January 2, 2008
"Like it or not international rugby now revolves around World Cups and this year's RBS Six Nations Championship marks the start of a new four year cycle." JT reports
Evolution rather than revolution is always my preferred option when selecting a national team as I made clear in my last column but all four home nations coaches could adopt the same New Year's resolution - to be bold and brave.
Like it or not international rugby now revolves around World Cups and this year's RBS Six Nations Championship marks the start of a new four year cycle.
That is not to say Brian Ashton, Eddie O'Sullivan, Frank Hadden and Warren Gatland should sacrifice the chance of winning by experimenting for the sake of it but they do need to have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve in the long term.
If that means blooding new players who they see as the backbone of the team in a couple of years time instead of sticking with the tried and trusted - so be it. Andy Robinson decided on the opposite course when he took over from Clive Woodward and it was a complete disaster.
But it's more than just turning over players, putting great old war-horses like Lawrence Dallaglio out to pasture and bringing in a natural replacement like James Haskell, they also have to look at what they have and what they might have so that they can devise a style of play that will make them winners.
It is not a level playing field. England have greater resources than the other three nations put together but that cannot be an excuse for Messers O'Sullivan, Hadden and Gatland.
It was ever thus but their respective supporters still have great expectations and the superlative performances from Argentina in the World Cup prove you can work wonders with small group of talented individuals.
So, what are the priorities?
For Ashton it is relatively simple. He has, as we have discussed, probably the most talented group of young backs England have ever been blessed with.
One enterprising bookie has today listed 10 possible contenders for the No.10 jersey. The last three - Jackson, Goode and Farrell - are not even worth considering but the top seven - Wilkinson (7-4), Cipriani (5-2), Hodgson (5-1), Flood (9-1), Barkley, Lamb and Geraghty (all 12-1) vividly illustrate his embarrassment of riches in that one position.
Toby Flood looks more likely to slot in at No. 12, Mike Tindall is getting back to full form and fitness, Matt Tait can play anywhere from 12 to 15 and so it goes on.
The only potential problem area in the backs is scrum-half but even that is relative.
Ashton's challenge, and it is the one he is least equipped to deal with, is to make English forward play much more dynamic so that he can make the most of those riches whilst still keeping the power base to be able to mix it with the best in the world.
The other three national coaches would love to have Ashton's selection problems - theirs are far more fundamental.
O'Sullivan must start to rebuild after a hugely disappointing World Cup campaign. He admits he cannot quite put his finger on why Ireland's form collapsed so dramatically after last year's Six Nations but he must know his pack needs rejuvenating.
The problem (and it is not unique) is that, whilst there are some promising back-rowers coming through, there is precious little to work with in the front five.
His props have always been a weakness but now the second-row is also beginning to creak. Paul O'Connell and Donnacha O'Callaghan should still have plenty of shelf life but the strain of carrying the others is beginning to tell.
There is also much talk about unrest in the backs with Brian O'Driscoll's captaincy being called into question. O'Sullivan has to sort it all out - and quickly - or the four year extension to his contract might not be worth the paper it's written on.
For Hadden it has to be more of the same. He, alone amongst the Home Nations coaches, achieved a significant improvement during the pre-World Cup training camps. Scotland came out looking bigger, fitter and more enterprising.
He probably has the least to work with but, if he can keep that sort of work ethic and build on the self-belief that was definitely developing during the tournament, Scotland might just cease to be the whipping boys this season.
Finally, Wales - a new coach and a new start. The atmosphere in the Welsh camp has been wrong ever since Mike Ruddock resigned. Gareth Jenkins never managed to stamp his authority - perhaps he was too nice a man. Player power and the normal east/west politicking undermined him.
Gatland is a very different animal. Whatever else he does he will take control and make his presence felt. It will not be easy because the regions appear to have gone backwards and, like Ireland, he does not have a huge amount of forward talent to work with.
It has to be back to basics. The tight forwards can expect a very uncomfortable year as they are required to get fitter and stronger than ever before and in record time if they want to be part of Gatland's plans going forward.
I also expect a more structured game from the backs. He knows Welsh flair is their greatest asset but you cannot fling the ball around without first creating a base and gaining quality possession.
Whether Gatland can achieve immediate success and be hailed as the second 'Great Redeemer' is unlikely but he will not be tempted to take short cuts. He knows he is in it for the long haul and, perhaps more than any of his counterparts, will be determined to stick to a four year plan.