Non England fans must be getting as bored of listening to conversations about England’s midfield problems as we are hearing about the O’Gara or Sexton and Parks or Jackson debates. However, it is a huge problem for England and with the Rugby World Cup a little over two weeks away, it would seem that Martin Johnson is finally starting to see the light.
The debacle at the Millennium Stadium two weeks ago was a rude awakening for England. With so much possession and set piece dominance, it was unforgivable not to come away with a victory. However, the fact that England couldn’t may just have been the medicine that the patient needed.
Cardiffgate highlighted England’s complete lack of penetration and creativity in the midfield. Toby Flood may not have had his best game in an England shirt, but the blame for England’s loss can hardly be levelled solely at him.
England’s midfield was woeful. Hape’s performance was below that required for international rugby, and while Mike Tindall had one of his better games, he failed to inspire. England reached for the bludgeon in Cardiff, but Wales’ tenacity highlighted the ineffectiveness of England’s current centre pairing.
The case for Manu
Although England’s centres were toothless in Cardiff, ironically it was this performance, not Manu Tuilagi’s strong debut a week earlier at Twickenham, that has changed the paradigm for Martin Johnson.
The rumour this week is that Shontayne Hape may finally be out of favour with Martin Johnson and he may be considering other options, including starting Manu Tuilagi with Mike Tindall this weekend in Dublin.
If we are to believe the rumours, it would seem that there are only two, possibly three, viable options at Martin Johnson’s disposal ahead of the Ireland game. Time is rapidly running out ahead of the Rugby World Cup and Johnson needs to make his mind up, and fast.
Manu Tuilagi and Mike Tindall. After previously failed attempts to play Tindall in the 12 shirt, and the stark realisation that he is NOT a distributor, I didn’t think we would see Johnson trying that again anytime soon. However, given that Hape is the only recognised 12 in the England Rugby World Cup squad, Johnson’s hand has been forced. In essence, it doesn’t matter which of these two play at 12 or 13, neither are specialists in the position. However, the potential is destructive. If England are going to resort to the bludgeon in New Zealand, this could be a far more effective partnership than Hape and Tindall. After all, Manu has far more strings to his bow than simply the crash ball, and in defence this would be a fearsome pairing. If the rumours are true, Saturday in Dublin could be a very physical encounter for the Irish midfield and an intriguing one from a spectator’s point of view.
Toby Flood and Mike Tindall. A move like this from Johnson, which is rumoured, would completely transform England’s backline options. It puts Jonny Wilkinson back in at 10 where he can keep the scoreboard ticking over and offers new attacking options. The trend now is for 12s to be more geared towards line breaking and offloading, but playing Flood at 12 would be more of a return to the classic 12 and 13 combination. Flood at 12 gives England a second distributor, giving Flood more time on the ball to make decisions, which he may benefit from. Certainly with two distributors on the pitch, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden are likely to see more ball and England more likely to actually score some tries.
Jonny Wilkinson and Manu Tuilagi. The third option is not something that has been rumoured, but is certainly a viable option and one to be considered. Jonny Wilkinson has a fantastic skill set and is an asset to England every time he plays, not least because of his solid defence and ability to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
However, if England play him at 10, it limits their attacking options. Flood plays flatter than Wilkinson, which suits guys like Foden and Ashton more. With a genuine second distributor outside him, Flood could blossom at 10 and Wilkinson will be rock solid in defence and ask questions of the opposition.
The bigger call is dropping Mike Tindall.
It may be unlikely given Johnson’s penchant for going with tried and tested, but remember what happened in Australia when his hand was forced and he gave Ben Youngs a run? The team was transformed, and Manu has the ability to have the same impact. Manu picks good lines and runs them hard; that is his gift and it would give the England midfield the go-forward they need. He is a more attacking threat than Tindall. It would be a bold call, but now could just be the time to make it.
There may only be one recognised 12 in the England Rugby World Cup squad, but in all honesty any of the above pairings would be more creative and penetrative than the Hape-Tindall combination.
Martin Johnson needs to make bold calls and he needs to start doing it now. Risks need to be taken and effective leadership is all about taking calculated risks. Johnson did it as a player without question, but it’s about time he started doing it more regularly as a coach.