Nick Cain: Sheridan snub is no way to win Test match

Andrew SheridanIf the main role of an international coach is to win Test matches, then it stands to reason that his main selection criterion is to select his best players, bar nothing. If he does not, for whatever reason, then he is jeopardising his own chances of success. That is why Stuart Lancaster is wrong to ignore the in-form England internationals who have helped to make Toulon the leaders of the Top 14, namely Andrew Sheridan, and the Armitage brothers, Steffon and Delon.
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Sheridan’s world class credentials at loose-head are writ large. He has been intrinsic to the mighty Toulon pack’s demolition of all-comers in the French league, with Bayonne annihilated 59-0 last weekend – Steffon Armitage helping himself to two tries and Delon one in an eight try rout – and Stade Francais edged out 24-19 at the Stade Mayol in midweek.
The victory left Toulon five points clear at the top of the table, having won nine out of their 10 matches this season, their only loss coming away at Toulouse when Sheridan and other luminaries were rested.
Although the RFU have made it clear  they do not wish to encourage the selection of French-based players ahead of those  with Premiership clubs, they have ultimately left it to the England head coach to decide when and if he selects players from the Top 14. Lancaster has said he agrees with the policy and has said he will call on England’s Foreign Legion only in “exceptional circumstances”.
The England coach has also cited the unavailability of players with Top 14 clubs getting released for training weeks or matches outside the IRB’s autumn and summer international windows as an added obstacle to their involvement, even though Sheridan and the Armitages would have had to be released by Toulon a week before the Fiji match if required.
Andrew Sheridan cartoonThe IRB regulations on player availability mean that all of the Toulon contingent are available for the England matches in the November window against Fiji, Australia and South Africa, but are not free to play against New Zealand in a match arranged outside that period.
Lancaster has re-iterated the Clive Woodward message about one percent gains being the difference between winning and losing at Test level, and therefore three weeks in which Sheridan and the Armitage brothers could make a difference is not something to be dismissed just because an arbitrary dictat demanding “exceptional circumstances”.
Yet, when Joe Marler – himself an international novice – was injured last weekend, putting Mako Vunipola in the firing line as England’s next starting loose-head despite having played only a handful of Premiership games, there was no mention of Sheridan. Instead, Matt Mullan, who has one cap, was drafted in.
Mullan has been playing well for Worcester, and there is no doubt he merits consideration, but he does not yet have world class credentials – and nor for that matter do Marler, Vunipola or the injured Alex Corbisiero. However, Sheridan, a Lion, a 40-cap  World Cup finalist, and a wrecker of Australian (and other) scrums, does.
What better tutelage could the promising Vunipola, or any of the others, have had than to learn from the big veteran over the next few weeks. Sheridan could have been reintegrated into the squad before being rested for the Fiji match – with Marler, Vunipola or Mullan doing the honours – and then unleashed for an hour on Australia and South Africa, allowing one of the new generation to widen the cracks his power opened in the Wallaby and Springbok scrums into crevasses in the final quarter.
England need to get off to a winning start against the Southern Hemisphere big three and build momentum by beating Australia and South Africa before taking on the world champions, and Sheridan could have given them multiples of Woodward’s one per cents.
Steffon Armitage does not have Sheridan’s pedigree, but he has reproduced the dynamic form that made him the last Top 14 Player of the Season to earn rave reviews in the French media this campaign. He could have been given a run at openside against Fiji, with Chris Robshaw shifting across to blindside, giving Lancaster another dimension to his back row as well as ramping up the competition for places.
Delon Armitage’s international credentials are already well-established, and his ability to play not just full-back but wing and outside-centre makes him an option that is as valuable as it is versatile.
It is easy to understand why New Zealand and Australia refuse to consider players who move overseas at international level because the logistics of incorporating those who move to Europe, and play a different season, when you are stuck at the other end of the earth are untenable. However, France is right next door, our nearest neighbours, and Toulon is a two hour flight away.
Winning is everything to South Africa, and their attitude contrasts starkly with England’s, with Springbok stars playing in England and France such as Francois Louw (Bath), Schalk Brits (Saracens) and Gurthro Steenkamp (Toulouse) already included in the tour party, and others such as Bakkies Botha (Toulon) and Marco Wenzel (Wasps) also sounded out.
By contrast, Lancaster’s decision to rule out players of the calibre of Sheridan and the Armitages simply because they are playing in France means England’s loss will be Toulon’s gain. What would make it even more galling is if Louw and Brits were part of a Springbok team which notched another Twickenham win.

One Comment

  1. Personally, While I think Sheridan would be able to crush who ever he came up against when we play Australia in the scrum, this is his only decent skill (his work in the loose and ball carrying is not good enough IMO) and Lancaster is looking for more dynamism in the forwards,
    I’m not sure Sheridan would contribute to this ethos. Plus NZ and SA are extremely close to Eng as world class scrummagers, i’m not sure Sheridan would have as much of an impact.
    Regarding S.Armitage, I completely agree, best No.7 in NH in last 12 months should be included, but D.Armitage’s time is past and not only is Foden better all around but Goode offers something different as a playmaker.

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