Six Nations
Ruthless selections could decide Six Nations
John Taylor
February 3, 2015
Stuart Lancaster's selection policy has been constrained by England's injury crisis © Getty Images

"The most important part of being a successful coach at international level is being a good selector!"

My old Welsh coach, Clive Rowlands, was the first person I ever heard say that and it is as true today as it was in the late 60s.

Carwyn James, years ahead of his time when he coached the 1971 British Lions, took it a stage further, reputedly refusing to take over from Rowlands unless he had an assurance that he would have sole responsibility for picking the team. In those days the 'Big Five,' the Welsh selection committee, were the most powerful rugby voices in the Principality - never mind that several of them had no first class rugby experience at all - and he was dismissed as a prima donna; James never coached Wales.

Nowadays, no coach would dream of taking on the job without that assurance - of course they consult with the rest of their coaching team but nobody questions that the coach is chief selector. It is still his most important role.

Does Lancaster have the selection X-Factor? Would he have settled on his 'A' team by now if things had gone to plan?

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests it is much more difficult for a young coach, that a bit of age and separation is a useful quality. Apart from the shenanigans and general lack of discipline at the 2011 World Cup it was ultimately poor selection that did for Martin Johnson. He was too conservative and too loyal to players - too prepared to give them an extra chance because he believed in them when all the evidence showed they were past their sell-by date - perhaps because he was too close to them. In the end, he was simply not ruthless enough, a fatal flaw in selection.

The French have suffered from the same disease in recent seasons. First Marc Lievremont and now Philippe Saint-Andre have chopped and changed endlessly to the detriment of performance and team spirit. Saint-Andre has a huge amount of talent at his disposal but the sheer number of players used since he took over is the real reason for the lack of cohesion and passion.

Scotland went through the same sort of dithering under Scott Johnson - at one stage he even managed to drop Richie Gray, perhaps the only Scottish forward any of the other home coaches would have swapped for one of their own!

Now Scotland have a very different animal in charge. Vern Cotter has immediately given the nation hope by basing his selection around the Glasgow team whilst making sure he is using all his best players. For the first time in years they go into the Six Nations with more ambition and expectation than just avoiding the wooden spoon.

Paul O'Connell and Joe Schmidt pose with the Six Nations trophy, Hurlingham Club, London, January 28, 2015
Joe Schmidt's clear and decisive thinking has already brought one Six Nations trophy to Ireland © Getty Images

Joe Schmidt exceeded all expectations by leading Ireland to the Championship last season and built on that with three wins and hugely impressive performances in the autumn internationals when everybody expected a dip because of Brian O'Driscoll's retirement. He has already shown himself to be clear thinking and decisive, a great start.

Warren Gatland, now by far the most experienced of the Home Nations coaches, has, of course, nothing to prove on the selection front. He already had a formidable track record with Wales when he took on the Lions' job and then shocked everybody by dropping O'Driscoll for the final Test on the Lions' tour to Australia. It was a brave call but totally vindicated when the Lions crushed the Wallabies to take the series.

So what about England? Stuart Lancaster comes from a totally different background - he never played international rugby and has worked his way up through teaching at grassroots level to the very top. Nobody has anything but praise for the excellent job he has done in reorganising the England set-up - his work ethic is faultless, his player management exemplary.

But does he have the selection X-Factor? Would he have settled on his 'A' team by now if things had gone to plan? At the moment we just do not know because he has had a terrible run of misfortune on the injury front. He has put a brave face on it - England have more strength in depth than the other nations and therefore have the players capable of stepping-up is the mantra - but deep down he must be ruing his luck.

With the World Cup looming he is a long way from knowing his best combinations in the centre, at half-back and the back-row. These are the key areas that decide how a team is going to play. In 2003, Clive Woodward went into the Six Nations pretty well knowing his starting XV for the World Cup with the luxury of being able to tweak a few things if necessary.

Lancaster still has huge decisions to make and we shall discover whether he is brave and decisive or, actually, a bit of a compromiser and ditherer. England are a good side but need to discover a much sharper cutting edge if they are to be real contenders for the World Cup. The next couple of months will define Lancaster's career - it is all down to selection.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist

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