It’s Grum Up North Lancaster has cut his English squad down to 24 players before announcing his matchday 22 for the upcoming Calcutta Cup game.
The Mole is looking down the team sheet, and while there are definitely some talented backs in contention for selection, he’s not too impressed by the standard of the pack.
Forwards – M Botha (Saracens), A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Cole (Leicester Tigers), T Croft (Leicester Tigers), P Dowson (Northampton Saints), D Hartley (Northampton Saints), J Marler (Harlequins), B Morgan (Scarlets), T Palmer (Stade Francais), G Parling (Leicester Tigers), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), M Stevens (Saracens), R Webber (London Wasps).
Backs – C Ashton (Northampton Saints), B Barritt (Saracens), M Brown (Harlequins), L Dickson (Northampton Saints), O Farrell (Saracens), B Foden (Northampton Saints), C Hodgson (Saracens), C Sharples (Gloucester Rugby), D Strettle (Saracens), J Turner-Hall (Harlequins), B Youngs (Leicester Tigers)
The backrow is going to be selected from amongst Tom Croft, Phil Dowson, Chris Robshaw and Ben Morgan; with Robshaw recently named captain and detailed as a flanker, The Mole predicts they’ll line up:
- No6. Croft
- No7. Robshaw
- No8. Morgan
That seems reasonable enough, until you consider just how abject all these players looked in their post-Christmas outings in the Heineken Cup. I’m distinctly unconvinced by Chris Robshaw as an openside, and he’ll be up against a born-and-bred groundhog in Ross Rennie. The Mole remembers watching Rennie in Donnybrook for Edinburgh against Leinster a good few years ago [I think it was the 2005-06 season, when Gordon D’Arcy and Felipe Contepomi basically put the team on their back for the first half of the season] and expecting him to be the next big name in Scottish rugby. He was a nipper back then – 19 years old – but he came off the bench and he was absolutely everywhere.
What’s more, the Scots have picked John Barclay as their backrow replacement, so there’s every chance that they’ll target the breakdown for steals and not just slowing in the second half. Barclay played at No8 for Glasgow against Leinster in the HEC game in Firhill, and with two Scottish opensides on the pitch, the supply of Leinster ball slowed to an absolute crawl.
The English second row isn’t too compelling either: Mouritz Botha, Geoff Parling and Tom “Charlie Calls It A Mirroir” Palmer. Palmer is actually a very fine player, but Botha  and Parling  are relative journeymen with precious little international rugby experience behind them. The Sweaties have chosen to start with Jim “Big Chum” Hamilton and Richie Gray, with Alastair Kellock on the bench: all three of them enormous specimens. Leo Cullen tells in his autobiography that Big Chum – with whom he initially split time when they were both at Leicester – is a very tough customer from a tough background; in contrast, Richie Gray is a purebred Alasdair.
The unifying factor is that both of them are absolutely huge. Big Chum tips the jockey’s scales at 203cm [6’8”] and 124kg [19st7lbs], but Laird Richie of Loch Lamper takes the prestigious title of Scotland’s Biggest Alasdair at 207cm [6’9”] and 129kg [20st4lbs]. Former captain Alastair Kellock sits on the bench; in The Mole’s eyes he outperformed Gray in Glasgow’s recent collision-fest with European champions Leinster, but he has to make-do with the substitute’s romper suit this time out.
The English backs look a lot more talented and threatening than their pack. Foden and Ashton must be bolted in at this stage, and are a smashing combination when counter-attacking. With Ashton a fixture on one wing, veteran Mark Cueto has finally been axed to make way for one of Charlie Sharples or the horrendously unlucky David Strettle [who should have about 40 caps by now, but instead has 7].
All the signs point to Owen Farrell playing at No13 outside Saracens team-mates Brad Barritt and Charlie Hodge-podge. The Mole has the inkling that Farrell will spend most of his English career playing No12 outside George Ford at No10, but that partnership could still be some way off. Ford is still scarily young [born in 1993!] and very slight, and while English coaches of the past have had the press-driven urge to include talented nippers in important positions, Lancaster would be a fool to parachute him into the current set-up. That’d likely go a whole lot further in the Matthew Tait direction that the Jonny Wilkinson direction.
Barritt is a blunt object at No12, a direct runner and concussive tackler in the Kevin Maggs mould. Is that going to be enough to make the jersey his own? Playing outside Hodgson dictates that you have to be both a technical and an aggressive defender, because the former Sale outhalf is never going to change his spots as a tackler. He doesn’t like it. On the other hand, having a common-or-garden [or Premiership] bosh-merchant at No12 rather negates the excellent distribution that Hodgson brings to the backline. It’s going to be worthwhile keeping an eye on what Barritt does in attack: are we going to see him skipped in front like a schoolboy, or running screens for a skip behind? Will he be used as a fulcrum for a looping Hodge-podge? Are we just going to see him crash it up and party like it’s 1999? Party’s over and out of time on that one, I’m afraid.
He’ll be going head to head with Sean Lamont. Robinson has once again brought the elder of the brothers into midfield from the wing, a tactic that has worked well in the recent past. Lamont Snr has both size and power, and even playing as a winger for the Scarlets he was a significant midfield threat in the Heineken Cup. He has probably played too long on the wing to be successfully redrawn as a No12 in peoples’ minds, but it could wind up being his best position. Jamie Roberts was initially seen as a fullback or a winger, but Gatland drafted him into the centre after just two test caps, rather than Lamont’s forty-odd. He might always be seen as a winger playing centre, no matter how well he adapts. Still, he’s going to be Scotland’s biggest threat on Saturday: just you watch. He’s got the distinct edge in straight-line speed over Graeme Morrison, the tall Glasgow centre who has caused Leinster and Ireland so many problems over the last three or four years; Morrison takes the bench as cover for the outside backs.
The Mole is calling for a home win in this one, and for the Scots to take the Calcutta cup for the first time since 2008. English teams have been playing some pretty turgid stuff in European competition, and while the Premiership bills itself as the most competitive league in the world, it has been producing uninspired teams who play a below par brand of rugby. Lancaster doesn’t have enough access to these players to upskill them sufficiently, while Robinson has had a lot of time with his team over the last six months.