Stuart Lancaster will announce his first England squad this week amid a strange sense of optimism. Forget England’s form since 2003, forget the World Cup: a new regime means new players and new combinations, and that inevitably means hope. In some instances, this is well-founded – England have their greatest abundance of quality full-backs in years, as Foden fights off Brown, Abendanon and Goode, and scrum-half and wing both look promising. However, as Chris wrote on this blog in October, the key positions of openside flanker and creative centre remain in doubt. Andy Saull’s recent form, therefore, could not be better timed.
Saull is one of the players who seems to have been around for a while. He has notched over 100 appearances for Saracens without winning a senior England cap, and he seems to figure in most people’s consciousness as ‘workmanlike’. He was not on the previous coaching team’s radar, as they preferred shifting a talented blindside flanker to seven rather than recruiting a specialist seven, and he never made the EPS under Johnson. It would therefore be some jump for him to start in such a key position against Scotland on February 4th.
However, several things are in his favour. First, despite his journeyman image, he is only 23, thus fitting the bill for a side that needs to build towards 2015. In addition, he has played for three England age-group sides and, crucially, the Saxons, where Lancaster was his coach, so the new man knows his strengths. Third, as mentioned, he is a genuine, out-and-out seven, which the World Cup showed to be a crucial ingredient of a successful side. And fourth, and most importantly, he has been at the heart of Saracens’ fantastic recent form.
No game has better showcased Saull’s attributes than that against Harlequins on 27th December. Despite the man-of-the-match award going to Brad Barritt (a contender for the centres, although not the most creative one), Saull was the difference between the two sides. He won penalties which Farrell could turn into points, he stopped the home side from building momentum and he dominated the much-vaunted Quins’ captain Chris Robshaw. Most notable of all, however, was his ability at the breakdown, where he stole, spoiled and scrapped for Harlequins’ ball for the full eighty minutes. It is this last attribute that makes him a serious contender for Lancaster’s back row.
England have for some time lacked a player who can jackal well and rip possession. This problem has been so chronic that I remember Steve Borthwick cementing his place as captain in 2009 when he performed the feat once against France. In the World Cup, after the games against Argentina and Georgia, England’s back rowers had achieved three turnovers between them. David Pocock, in the quarter-final against South Africa, managed nine on his own, at least six of which were legal.
In keeping with the world’s best flankers, Saull has the knack of arriving at the breakdown at exactly the right time, which is crucial under the current laws. With the tackler now obliged to release both player and ball before challenging, the days of bringing a runner down and seamlessly swinging into the jackal are gone. The most effective time to reach the breakdown is at the exact moment at which the tackle is completed – you can then drop into position over the ball and either tear it free or win a penalty for holding on. This rewards players with a high work rate, who are prepared to chase the ball even when it isn’t in their channel, and Saull is both a tireless runner and a strong player, capable of resisting the first hit from the attacking ruckers. Whether he is stealing possession, or just slowing it down by getting his hands on it, he is a massive asset for any team.
When Saull signed a three-year contract extension at Saracens in 2009, Brendan Venter called him a “giant stake… helping to underpin our future”. If Lancaster tries a traditional openside for his new England squad, he may well end up saying the same thing.