With there less than a year to go before the World Cup, 2003 winner Neil Back fears England have too many selection issues to address.
Neil Back is a man who has been there, done it and got the t-shirt. They don’t just award MBEs to anybody, you know!
Here is a man who graced the very top of his chosen profession, with his last outing in an England jersey seeing him lift the William Webb Ellis trophy as part of a triumphant World Cup squad in 2003.
He is, therefore, well placed to pass judgement on what it takes to be the best and what the class of 2015 will need to do if they are to follow in his illustrious footsteps and emulate the achievements of Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Johnson and company.
There is less than a year to go now before England will throw open its doors and welcome the cream of the rugby crop to these shores, with the heavyweights of the southern hemisphere preparing to lock horns with their European counterparts once again.
The hosts will be expected to go well in their own backyard, but Back fears a number of selection issues yet to be addressed by head coach Stuart Lancaster could prove to be their undoing – with it virtually impossible to name a preferred starting XV.
Back, speaking at a Brother UK event, told HITC Sport: “What we’ve got is lots of very good players, there is no question about that and the fact that we have strength in depth.
“If you asked the same question about what is the starting XV in 2002 ahead of the 2003 World Cup, I think most pundits would have named 16, 17, 18 players max. I think if you ask the same question now, name England’s starting XV, you have probably got 26, 27, 28 players named. Therein lies the problem.
“I don’t think in the last England games, certainly in internationals played this year, they have played the same starting XV at any point. There is a problem. There are definitely players that can step up, but I suppose we haven’t got that winning confidence, that belief that winning creates. They are not as autonomous as they need to be.”
He added on the problems facing Lancaster and his coaching team in the wake of an Autumn Internationals series which delivered defeats to New Zealand and South Africa and victories over Samoa and Australia: “If you look through the team, who is our starting number one? Is it (Joe) Marler or is it (Alex) Corbisiero? Well, Corbisiero’s not played and Marler has done pretty well. Look at hooker, who is our starting hooker? Is it Dylan Hartley, is it (Rob) Webber, is it (David) Paice? Hartley is known to make rash decisions under pressure and in big games that can cost you. Look at tight head, (David) Wilson has maybe got 40 caps – albeit a lot of games off the bench. Dan Cole played his first game back against Toulon for Leicester. Who is going to start?
“Second rows, (Geoff) Parling is out injured, he’s just come back, (Joe) Launchbury, (Courtney) Lawes, (Dave) Attwood, (George) Kruis. There are lots of names there, lots of good players, but we need to settle on the combinations. The back row is another interesting one. I don’t know our combination. We have got (Tom) Wood in there, we’ve got (Chris) Robshaw in there, we’ve got (Ben) Morgan, we’ve got (Billy) Vunipola in there. These are all names and good players but we need to settle on a team that can get used to playing together under the most pressure.
“I won’t even run through the back line, but therein lies the same problem. Who is our starting nine? Who is our starting 10? Who is our starting centre partnership? Who is our starting back three? These are questions that Stuart Lancaster and his team need to sort out between now and the Six Nations and start with the team that they believe will play the majority of games and the team that can carry that shirt forward.
“One of the questions I would ask is: why did we pick (George) Ford and (Owen) Farrell against Samoa and then not play the same two against Australia if they thought that was the right combination? For me, I don’t think that will be the combination to play at 10 and 12. I think one of them will play at 10 and my personal preference would be Ford. But I don’t know why (Billy) Twelvetrees wasn’t given a run in the Samoa game to get him right for the Australia game, to build some continuity. That’s a key position that England need to resolve, sooner rather than later.”
Another issue for England is that there are players currently on the fringes of the fold that are hoping to force their way into contention before the important business begins in September 2015, with Sale Sharks’ enigmatic fly-half Danny Cipriani and Bath’s cross-code centre star Sam Burgess among those hoping to put themselves in the mix.
“I think the most key position to sort out is the number 12,” said Back.
“Twelvetrees, Kyle Eastmond, Luther Burrell are all gunning for that spot as well as a certain lad called Sam Burgess, who I believe this weekend makes his first start having made two appearances off the bench for Bath. It will be interesting to see how he goes because no player has really grabbed the shirt. I would look forward to seeing people putting their hand up. I think the management and selectors have got to nail down a team pretty quick and get combinations working together, to get familiarity between the players at the level it needs to be.”
Neil Back was speaking on behalf of Brother UK, the leading information, communications and technology brand. Brother UK has been helping businesses work smarter for over 50 years. For more information visit Brother.co.uk.