Lancaster hoping Saracens experiment doesn’t bomb
It seems interim England coach Stuart Lancaster is hoping that Saracens reaching the Heineken Cup quarter-finals – the only English side to do so – can provide the national side with the impetus they crave as they open their campaign against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday.
He has chosen five players – wing David Strettle, centres Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell, outhalf Charlie Hodgson and secondrow Mauritz Botha – from the London club. Barritt and Farrell make their respective debuts, Botha his first start, while it is four years since Hodgson won the last of his 36 caps.
Lancaster’s decision to select a third of his side from one club is rooted in the belief that, in the case of the inside three in the backs, and wing Strettle (his last cap was against New Zealand in 2008), they can translate an understanding from the club game to the test arena. It’s a reasonable premise at face value but hugely reliant on the debutants having the mental strength to cope with the pressure which is less assured.
The composition of the England match squad – it contains another new cap, Phil Dowson at number eight and five other uncapped players in the replacements – has been lauded as a bold move but the messages emanating from the camp don’t quite substantiate the premise that England are going to loosen the shackles of orthodoxy.
Farrell and Barritt have been named and inside and outside centre respectively for the national team, yet they play the other way around for their club. Saracens are not particularly noted for the flair and invention of their back play; rather it is their ability to shut down teams, with Barritt in particular a primary contributor, that is a mainstay of their success.
Lancaster argued: “They (the centre partnership) are used to playing together, but we will use them slightly differently to how Saracens do. We have our own personal philosophy and it is not mirrored on anyone else.”
The logic of asking two players to swap roles that they fulfil at club level on their respective debuts for the national team is not immediately obvious.
To say it is a gamble is an understatement.