Toulon’s crushing victory over Harlequins provided much food for thought on Friday night. Jonny Wilkinson showed that international retirement has diminished him not at all, and also gave an insight into why oppositions teams have feared him for so long as he ruthlessly punished Harlequins’ appalling discipline. From Harlequins’ point of view, they must wonder why even a weakened team was so comprehensively outplayed. Although Jordan Turner-Hall, Matt Hopper, Ugo Monye and replacement Danny Care all showed class in the face of a overwhelming French pressure, Mike Brown and George Robson did their chances of international honours no favours at all. For potential Premiership champions, it was a truly abject display.
The most intriguing aspect of the contest for Stuart Lancaster, however, will have been the performance of Steffon Armitage. The doughty flanker has not really featured on England’s radar since his move to France in 2011 – he was one of those players that Johnson was happy to lose to make a point about moving abroad. Even before that, he hadn’t held down a place and he did not seem to fit the mould of the England back row.
Like many, however, a move to France has reinvigorated him. Playing in the star-studded Toulon team, the diminutive flanker has consistently been first choice at openside, valued for his pace and his ‘on the floor’ ability at the breakdown. The French side have granted him the sort of freedom that Tom Croft enjoyed in the Six Nations, allowing him to pop up in the wide channels in attack where his pace is most effective. Indeed, quite apart from his brilliant work in the tackle area, he caused Harlequins no end of problems with ball in hand, twice breaking the line and also demonstrating a more-than-useful boot. This follows a crucial late try against Stade Français in February, when he barged over in the corner to force a draw.
For those who feel that England would benefit from a genuine openside, Armitage is surely the outstanding candidate (along with Andy Saull of Saracens). His first notable action was to win a penalty for holding on as he timed perfectly his arrival at the ruck, before clinging limpet-like to man and ball. With his lack of height and powerful frame, he is perfectly suited to ripping away possession, much in the mould of Neil Back. It is a skill-set that England might find extremely useful against the powerful South African ball-carriers this summer.
Unfortunately, Armitage remains an outsider for the travelling squad, let alone England’s starting fifteen. Already out of favour for playing abroad, he incurred further RFU displeasure when he described them as “dickheads” for suspending brother Delon in November. Furthermore, with Croft and Morgan cementing their places during the Six Nations, the only other back row spot is occupied by Chris Robshaw, Lancaster’s captain. This gives him a considerable amount of protection, even without taking into account his decent showings since January. Robshaw may not be a top-class breakdown practitioner but he is an excellent leader and he deserves far more credit for England’s cohesion and backs-against-the-wall quality than perhaps he has received.
Even with these obstacles, however, I would like to see him tour in the summer. Given England’s plethora of blindsides, he would offer good cover from the bench, as he can also play at number 8 (he lined up there for a couple of attacking scrums against Harlequins, although the visitors’ front row failed to complete either of these set pieces). In addition, Calum Clark’s lengthy suspension and the mysterious silence regarding Tom Wood’s recovery mean that back-row spots are available.
Certainly, Armitage would seem a better impact substitute than Phil Dowson, and his pace will suit South Africa’s fast, dry pitches. In the event of a Robshaw injury, England could field a fearsomely quick back-row of Croft, Armitage and Morgan, one that brings pace, good handling, powerful carrying, big defence and competitiveness on the floor. With the need for Lancaster to develop and diversify his squad’s ability, England fans can only hope that yesterday’s performance brought this one step closer to reality.