Cloud darkens new dawn: Bold Lancaster may have to do without first-choice captain
Every time Stuart Lancaster attempts to point England towards a brighter, more positive future, some unforeseen development undermines him.
The acting head coach of the national team unveiled a young, fresh squad and spoke boldly on Wednesday of his desire for England to develop an adventurous streak. But as with his previous upbeat bulletins, bad news gatecrashed this brave new world.
Having selected the men he believes can ignite fresh hope, Lancaster spoke of the next pressing issue — the captaincy. He repeatedly referred to the concept of a ‘leadership group’, with six or seven established players, supporting the skipper.
New dawn: England head coach Stuart Lancaster announced his squad for the RBS 6 Nations
Forwards: M Botha (Saracens), C Clark (Northampton), A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Cole, T Croft, L Deacon (all Leicester), P Dowson, D Hartley, C Lawes (all Northampton), J Marler (Harlequins), L Mears (Bath), B Morgan (Scarlets), T Palmer (Stade Francais), C Robshaw (Harlequins), M Stevens (Saracens), R Webber (Wasps), D Wilson (Bath), T Wood (Northampton).
Backs: C Ashton (Northampton), B Barritt (Saracens), M Brown (Harlequins), L Dickson (Northampton), O Farrell (Saracens), T Flood (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton), C Hodgson (Saracens), J Simpson (Wasps), C Sharples (Gloucester), D Strettle (Saracens), M Tuilagi (Leicester), J Turner-Hall (Harlequins), B Youngs (Leicester).
Cards were kept close to his chest when it came to the player who will lead the team out into the raucous hostility of an RBS Six Nations opener at Murrayfield, but Sportsmail has learned that Tom Wood had been identified as the front-runner for the task.
The choice of a bright, articulate figure and superbly energetic and abrasive player would be another positive step, but circumstances may intervene.
The news that Wood has a foot injury which could stop him playing before the start of the championship also threatens the precious balance of the likely starting back row.
The 25-year-old was a mainstay of the team’s title success last year, only to find himself marginalised during the World Cup. However, he has responded with a series of outstanding performances for his club and was yesterday duly included in an overhauled 32-man senior Elite Performance Squad.
Lancaster has sought the opinions of an array of players and coaches within the Aviva Premiership and believes Wood has the right blend of playing ability, fierce work ethic and high standards, tactical awareness, forthright views and the confidence to speak his mind.
Looking forward: England forwards coach Graham Rowntree talks to the press as the England squad is announced
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT!
England squad 2011
Average age: 29 years, 11 months
Average caps: 22.9
England squad 2012
Average age: 25 years, 4 months
Average caps: 13.3
While Wood has been identified as a leader, his Northampton captain Dylan Hartley has also been touted as a viable option, along with Harlequins skipper Chris Robshaw.
Last night, Ladbrokes had made Hartley their 6-4 favourite for the trip to Edinburgh on February 4, with Robshaw 2-1 and Wood at 11-4.
While the intention was to monitor all the contenders during the training camp later this month, Wood had been pencilled in as captain and openside flanker in a back row also featuring Tom Croft and Robshaw at No 8.
Leaders in waiting: Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley are two front runners for the England captaincy
New era: Lancaster explains his squad selection
FIVE PRIORITIES STUART LANCASTER AHEAD OF THE RBS 6 NATIONS…
1. Off-field discipline: At the start of England’s training camp in Leeds later this month, the coaches will emphasise the standards of behaviour they expect from players, down to the smallest details of punctuality and courtesy. These are Stuart Lancaster’s ‘non-negotiables’ and the aim is to avoid any repeat of the World Cup controversies.
2. On-field discipline: One of the problems which blighted England’s campaign in New Zealand and the preceding years was conceding penalties and receiving yellow cards. They were seemingly unable to adapt to patterns of officiating as effectively as other countries, particularly at the breakdown. That area is a priority.
3. Rolling maul: Forwards coach Graham Rowntree spoke at length about this part of the game which used to be such a strength for England, but not of late. He admitted the national team have ‘gone away’ from that core attacking weapon in line with several clubs, but reviving it will be a key target.
4. Flow and alignment: Lancaster intends to focus on how England line up and adjust their positions out wide, in order for runners to take the ball at pace, in front of them. It is such a basic aspect of the game for sides such as the All Blacks, but England have been static too often.
5. Finding a poacher: If he is fit, Tom Wood is expected to start at openside flanker and he has played superbly there for Northampton. But Lancaster and Rowntree are keen to advance the progress of Saracens’ Andy Saull in the Saxons, as he is seen as a specialist, ‘groundhog’ who can dominate the breakdown.
Lancaster said: ‘A group has gone and a new group needs to step up and take the lead. Whether it is a Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Ben Youngs, Tom Wood, Toby Flood — they are the names who are going to become the future leaders of this England team; good characters, good people, talented players
‘The ultimate aim is for the players to control the culture.’
While Wood was already established, the back-row unit of six announced yesterday includes three Test novices — Calum Clark and Phil Dowson of Northampton and Scarlets No 8 Ben Morgan.
Graham Rowntree, the coach with prime responsibility for the pack, said of the newcomers: ‘Ben Morgan is great at everything and we’ve been watching him for a long time. Robshaw has probably been the form back row in the Premiership.
Clark is an exciting young talent and, like in a lot of other positions, now is the time to bring him in and work with him. He is energetic and aggressive and I’m excited about him.
‘Dows plays all three positions, is a model professional and has been unlucky up until now, so I’m delighted for him.’
In particular reference to the key issue of openside flanker, Rowntree added: ‘You can’t argue with how Tom Wood has played in the No 7 shirt for Northampton this season and in the Six Nations last year — or indeed Chris Robshaw. Dowson has played seven and I’m sure Tom Croft could play seven too.’
Of the promoted rookies, Owen Farrell has attracted most attention as a prolific, composed goal-kicker at the age of 20. The young Saracen is sure to play at
Murrayfield but Lancaster was adamant that he will not be tried and discarded if the experiment doesn’t work out, as was the case with Mathew Tait seven years ago.
Chance to shine: Owen Farrell is one of the young players brought into the squad
‘Owen has just gone from being an academy player to playing in a Premiership final,’ he said. ‘He has gone from the Under 20 World Cup and stepped straight into the senior squad. He won’t be fazed by it. He has temperament and presence.
‘Am I worried about Owen Farrell playing international rugby No I’m not. Will he be dropped if he plays poorly and be kicked out of the squad Absolutely no way. It’s about developing for the future.’