Rugby: Goode guy can finish

By Chris Hewett

England, fresh from their victory over the All Blacks last year, started their Six Nations campaign against Scotland last night. As Chris Hewett writes, a key part of their approach this season is based on lessons learned from Australia and New Zealand.

English fullback Alex Goode breaks away from South African defenders at Twickenham.  Photo / Getty Images
English fullback Alex Goode breaks away from South African defenders at Twickenham. Photo / Getty Images

It is 11 long weeks since England were the victims of a shocking assault by the touring Wallabies.

They pinched one of the old country's 'Big Ideas' - the development of a creative attacking axis linking the first five-eighth and fullback - and shaped it to their own specifications before returning it to its owners in a place with minimal exposure to sunlight.

Since then, the fullback in question, Alex Goode, has celebrated a momentous victory over the All Blacks, helped ease Saracens into the knockout stage of the Heineken Cup, recovered from a shoulder injury and made a small piece of rugby history by participating in the first competitive match played on an artificial pitch. Yet snapshots of that distressing afternoon against Australia still flicker in his mind's eye.

"When something like that happens, it's down to you to take everything you can from the experience," he says. "In one way, the Australia game reinforced one of rugby's truths: that if you're not going forward as a team, it doesn't much matter what you do at No10 or No15. We were on the back foot for much of the game and as a result, I found myself under a whole heap of pressure.

"But the Wallabies also showed us how effective that 10/15 combination can be. Kurtley Beale and Berrick Barnes didn't do anything we hadn't thought about doing ourselves, but facing it was instructive."

Previous red-rose coaching regimes may have reacted by giving the thing up as a bad job. Stuart Lancaster, the current boss, has taken a different approach.

He could easily have rested Goode for last night's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Twickenham, and replaced him with Mike Brown of Harlequins or Ben Foden of Northampton. Instead, he has recommitted himself to the bolder, more imaginative model.

Most observers would see the second-five role as England's principal problem position, and with good reason: since Will Greenwood ended his seven-year tour of duty in 2004, successive coaches have cried out for an intelligent game-manager who was neither as weak as Aussie beer in defence nor as slow as an ox in attack.

Lancaster's explanation for picking Goode for the autumn series was the need for two footballers in the backline - a telling comment that suggested he was less than spellbound by the artistry of his first-choice centres, Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi, however much he might appreciate their physical gifts.

Yet the statistics indicate that, of all positions, fullback has given England the most grief. The record cap-winners in every other area - from Rory Underwood and Mike Tindall at wing and centre to Jonny Wilkinson at first-five and Matt Dawson at halfback; from Jason Leonard and Martin Johnson in the tight forwards to Lawrence Dallaglio among the loosies - played at least 70 games. The most decorated No15? Step forward Matt Perry of Bath, with the grand total of 36.

In Perry's day - Clive Woodward gave him his debut in 1997 - the fullback argument was much as it is now. Some coaches, not least pioneering backs coach Brian Ashton, came to favour an ultra-rapid strike runner like Iain Balshaw or, latterly, Jason Robinson.

Woodward prized the alternative virtues in Perry's make-up: his defensive game (he was neither fazed nor flattened by Jonah Lomu); his reliability in contact (his only serious coughing-up of possession was in the 1999 World Cup against the All Blacks, when Dallaglio presented him with a hospital pass of intensive care proportions); and, crucially, his footballing prowess.

Perry was a midfielder by upbringing, rather than a pure wing like Robinson. Goode comes from the same tradition, and if Australia continue to play Barnes, another first-five, in his new role, we could be on the cusp of a new age of superior fullback strategy.

"I think the reason nobody has won too many caps in the 15 position is that the game changes all the time and the fullback role changes with it, perhaps more than any other position," Goode says. "There are the two basic types ... the time I spent as a No10 has helped me with my kicking, my distribution, my game understanding and my sense of what's needed covering the backfield.

"Other guys, like Israel Dagg of New Zealand, are seriously quick and natural finishers. But you have to learn to do a bit of the other, don't you?"

When Goode runs, he often appears to take chances yet his ability to emerge in one piece, ball in hand, is uncanny.

Goode explains: "I think I assess situations quite well. It comes from playing a lot of rugby at 10, where you get used to operating in heavy congestion, and from learning more about the fullback trade. The key thing is footwork, because it's vital to beat the first man."

Eddie Jones, the former Wallaby coach, during a brief spell at Saracens moved Goode from 10 to 15.

"Watching someone as experienced as Glen Jackson [the New Zealand international referee] play that role in front of me was only going to help my development. Glen could be the harshest man in the world, mind you: if I called for the ball and then messed up, he'd shout and scream and swear.

"When he retired, I was sorry to see him go. By the end, we had this fantastic sense of mutual trust. I learnt a lot from him and I still count him as a great friend. Even if he is a ref."

One of the happier facts of rugby life is that good guys sometimes receive their just rewards: there may never have been a more likeable England player than Perry and he won the positional battle with Balshaw. The question now is whether the Goode guy can reinvent the fullback role and give his country a cutting edge. The Independent

- Herald on Sunday

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