The back row has been the most problematic area of England squads since 2003, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to settle down any time soon. Stuart Lancaster had an opportunity to bring a fresh approach with his first Elite Player Squad but, if anything, his selection has the air of new actors performing the same script.
The make up of England’s back row will only be set in stone when Lancaster announces the team to face Scotland. However, he has already dramatically reduced his options by including four blindside flankers in his squad, with only one specialist at 7 and 8. When you take into account the youth and inexperience of those specialists (both are 22, both are uncapped), it raises the genuine prospect of a back row made up of three number 6′s.
Add in the fact that Calum Clark has played the majority of his rugby at blindside for Northampton, which calls into question his credentials as a genuine openside in the first place, and it seems that the most likely starting three are Croft, Robshaw and Dowson.
That team sheet would be a statement of Lancaster’s selection philosophy. There are essentially two schools of thought when it comes to picking a team in any sport which has clearly defined formations, and by picking so many players with similar skill sets Lancaster appears to be conforming to what I call the ‘maximum talent’ approach.
Using this method, a coach will aim to identify the fifteen (or eleven, thirteen etc.) players of greatest ability and find a way to accommodate them in his tactics and formation. Wayne Smith, the New Zealand backline guru, said that this philosophy guided the All Blacks’ World Cup squad, ultimately leading to Richard Kahui’s selection on the wing (a decision which was richly rewarded by his performances). It is also common to see two fly-halves in a team, with one nominally the inside centre, as happened to Jonny Wilkinson at various times during his England and Lions career.
In other sports, the extraordinary formation that Barcelona employed to accommodate Eto’o, Messi, Henry and Ronaldhino is perhaps the most extreme example of getting the most talent possible on the pitch.
The other approach focuses much more on defined roles and the combinations as a path to success. This holds that, however good your options at full-back, you still need two genuine wingers to give you the requisite resources for success (defensive positioning, tactical awareness, timing of runs etc.). The area in which this is paramount is the front row, where no elite team would select two hookers at the expense of a prop, whatever the quality of the hookers. Those who subscribe strictly to this point of view would always prefer to have a specialist in each position, even if it meant excluding a very good athlete from the starting line-up.
Clearly, neither strategy can be pursued without compromise. However rich your resources, you would never select four fly-halves in the backline, even if they were Carter, Spencer, Evans and Mehrtens. Equally, it would have been disadvantageous to exclude one of Josh Lewsey and Jason Robinson in 2003 on the grounds that they were both primarily full-backs. The constant balancing act of selection is in choosing which approach is right for the players at your disposal, and this is where I start to feel a touch uneasy about the EPS.
Whilst the squad does not necessarily commit Lancaster to either view, it would seem that he is prepared to compromise on having out-and-out back row practitioners (barring the extraordinary selection of both Morgan and Clark). Although this would clearly not be without precedent, I think it would be a fundamental mistake, for three reasons.
The first is that Lancaster is not being forced to choose between supermen. If McCaw, Pocock, Warburton and Dusautoir were all English, you could understand the need for flexibility. However, none of the current flankers has international pedigree except Croft, and he is certainly not undroppable. Lancaster was not forced to include any of his myriad number 6′s, and I fear he may miss the chance to develop a promising openside into a world class player.
Secondly, it is clear that certain positions are more tolerant of compromise than others. Most backs can do an adequate job on the wing, provided they have the pace; inside-centre is such a broadly defined position that both 10′s and 13′s can be trusted there. However, if the World Cup taught us anything, it’s that number 7 (like prop and hooker) is not one of these roles. The openside’s skill set is essential to modern rugby, and it cannot easily be mimicked. Playing with number seven on your back (as Robshaw did for Harlequins this weekend, significantly) does not make you an openside flanker, and the Johnson era, which saw Moody, Wood and Haskell transferred across the back row, provides powerful evidence of the need for expertise.
Lastly, the danger with shifting players around is that you don’t get the best out of them. Asking Haskell to play like an 8 in New Zealand may have utilised his running power, but it exposed his lack of control at the base of the scrum. Equally, putting Mike Brown on the wing would surely waste his ability to arrive late into the line, as he does so effectively for Harlequins. If, as seems probable, Robshaw plays at 7, he will be forced to change the approach that has brought so much success at club level. Unless he turns out to be exceptionally versatile, this feels like turning a potentially great player in a good one.
The early evidence of Lancaster’s regime brings much cause for optimism – a very different squad, a new coaching team, a new training base and a new culture. However, with a tricky fixture list, a number of injury concerns over the few experienced players in the squad and the possibility of the Devil’s number in the back row, this could prove to be a difficult spring for the Red Rose.