Stop-gap mentality is so wrong
March 11, 2009
France coach Marc Lievremont (left) is obviously a fan of 'Caveman' Sebastien Chabal © Getty Images
Sebastien Chabal Tom Croft Gordon D'Arcy Warren Gatland Imanol Harinordoquy James Haskell James Hook Martin Johnson Dafydd Jones Stephen Jones Marc Lievremont Fulgence Ouedraogo Martyn Williams
It used to be an accepted maxim that the man in possession of a place in the team was the man in the driving seat. You don't change a winning team was another generally accepted principle.
Not any more! There will be quite a few players biting their tongues this week but privately fuming at being left out as the Six Nations builds to a climax.
Fulgence Ouedraogo will be one and James Haskell another. They would have been looking forward to knocking lumps out of each other on Sunday only to discover that their bosses, Marc Lievremont and Martin Johnson have different ideas even though they have both performed better than most of their team-mates.
Poor Ouedraogo has fallen victim to the romance that surrounds Sebastien Chabal. Lievremont obviously loves the big caveman but has finally been persuaded he is too loose to play in the second row. It took some doing.
He dropped him after the Ireland match giving that as the reason only to reinstate him against Wales. Chabal responded with flashes of the old aggression but the French scrum was often under pressure and, at the age of 31, the energy levels are not what they were. Predictably he was one of the first players to be replaced. Against the bigger English pack Lievremont dare not risk him in the engine room but is still determined to find him a place. It doesn't make much sense to me - the days are long gone when he will blow away the opposition.
These days he is good for an hour at most so it would seem to make much more sense to have him on the bench as an impact player covering the whole back five. It is particularly nonsensical as Thierry Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy and Ouedraogo look more formidable and more effective with every match.
Haskell's dropping is even more of a nonsense. Until Joe Worsley returned he was the only member of the pack with real aggression. Now he has been sacrificed because they fear there is not enough pace. I have no problems with the inclusion of Tom Croft - I would have had him at open-side from the start - but, if England have any ambition, it surely has to be at the expense of Nick Easter with Haskell reverting to No. 8.
To me it is yet more evidence of Johnson's stop-gap mentality at the moment. He is well aware that England have the psychological advantage over France at the moment - they have simply out powered them on the last three occasions the two sides have met in competitive matches - and he is more intent on keeping that than trying to find the style and team that will suit England best going forward.
Fortunately, I think France have played into his hands and I believe England can win this one despite the shortcomings in selection.
I also believe Warren Gatland has got it wrong. I am full of admiration for the way he has transformed the Welsh squad but I do not accept that the 10 changes he originally made for the Italy game are good for the team. He has always kept his senior players on their toes by reminding them they are only as good as their last game but he has said this is a team selected to give players experience and build greater strength in depth.
That is something you do on summer tours and in lesser internationals. I find it hard to accept it is in the best interests of a team still trying to win the Six Nations especially when they need to restore self confidence after the defeat in Paris.
Again, as a player I would be furious. It is bad enough to have players winning cheap caps for 10 minute appearances as replacements when the game is already won but to be denied a Six Nations appearance when you know you are the first choice would really get under my skin. James Hook for Stephen Jones in a game where we want to score a hatful of points I can accept. Dafydd Jones for Martyn Williams I find hard to justify. I am also a touch worried about a completely new front-row.
However, I think the days of Wales slipping up in Rome are over for a while so I still expect them to win. I just hope it is done with style and conviction so the mood (and the points difference) going into the last game, against Ireland, is totally positive.
I would be particularly hurt if I were one of the four Irishmen dropped for the Scottish game. Sure, Declan Kidney is picking from strength - you could even argue that a fully firing Gordon D'Arcy is worth a place in any country's back line - but Tomas O'Leary, Jerry Flannery and Jamie Heaslip have played out of their skins.
But then, they are on the bench and we shall no doubt see them on the field at some stage on Saturday. I guess that's the big difference, modern players probably do think the team is made up of 22 not 15.
At least Scotland's changes make sense. If their first choice second-rows are fit they will add much needed power and Chris Paterson's boot could be invaluable. I still don't believe that will be enough. Ireland have won on their last three visits to Edinburgh in the Championship so Murrayfield holds no fears and I expect them to make it four in a row on Saturday.
And that should set-up a winner-take-all showdown in Cardiff on Saturday week.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com
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