Some people just don’t get it and they have my every sympathy.
Danny Care is clearly the most eye-catching scrum half that England have at their disposal and it is only when Ben Youngs is injured that Eddie Jones finally promotes Care into his side.
It was the game against Australia last November that really pressed the question. Why doesn’t he start? He came on with just 11 minutes left on the clock and, in that miniscule amount of time, turned in one of the all-time great super-sub performances.
With some really clever footwork, he created two tries, one for Jonny May and one for Jonathan Joseph, and then, to cap it all, he was rewarded with a run-in for a try of his own. He has speed, guile, a brilliant eye for the gap. And he is great to watch.
So the question came through louder than ever: why doesn’t he start?
To be fair, Youngs, the man who has kept him out of the team is no slouch. He can make a few electrifying runs of his own. He likes to use the dummy. But he is not quite the eye-catching presence that you see from Care. Yet, of the 22 games under Eddie Jones that they have both played in, Youngs has started 18 times and Care just four.
However, now is Care’s chance. The rest of the NatWest Six Nations Championship is the massive opportunity that Care has been looking for. Youngs’ injury last weekend against Italy will keep him on the sidelines for four months. So now is Care’s time. At least so it would seem.
Care’s problem is that he is so good
To understand why Care has been on the subs’ bench for most of Jones’ time at the helm, we have to appreciate Jones’ philosophy and the fact that he has such strength in depth that he is in a position to employ it.
It is not as if Jones has a pecking order of his best scrum halves, all in order, so that if one gets injured, the others get promoted one spot up the list. It is not like that at all. By almost always starting with Youngs, Jones is not making a straightforward statement: Youngs is better than Care. Not at all.
Jones’ philosophy is more about different types of players for different parts of the game.
Traditionally, we have come to regard the players on the subs’ bench as the ones who aren’t quite as good as the starting XV. Jones, however, always describes the bench players as the “finishers” while the starting XV are the “starters”.
Jones starts with Youngs not because he is better, but because he likes the structure that Youngs can give the side, especially with his box-kicking. He is a much better box-kicker than Care.
The theory, then, is that, towards the end of a game when teams are tiring, Jones can bring on Care – all speed and trickery – and he can cut them to pieces. The Australia game is the case in point.
Most other teams won’t select this way. Most teams just go with “best” to start. This is, in part, because it helps build combinations. But it is also, perhaps, because they haven’t the privilege of the strength in depth to play this way.
Care, therefore, has had to resign himself to playing the bench role. On Saturday, he will overtake Matt Dawson as the most-capped England scrum half of all time. Of his 77 caps to date, though, 43 have been as a sub.
Can Care keep the starting spot?
In one respect, you feel for Care. You can see examples of the modern scrum half – fast, snipers, excellent at making the half-break – all around this Six Nations. Gareth Davies, the Wales no9 Care will start against on Saturday, is your prime example.
In the England set-up, players are conditioned to accept that being a finisher is no worse than a starter. However, no matter how hard you try to make this the culture, amongst highly competitive men, you won’t find a single one of those finishers not harbouring ambitions to step into the starting line-up. It is just written into their DNA. Care is no different.
So I am watching the next few weeks, and Care’s performance at no9, with great interest. There is clearly an argument to be made for starting him – even when Youngs is available. But Care needs to ram that home, he needs to make the argument unanswerable.
In the shorter term, though, I wonder if Jones’ policy of picking certain types of players to play at specific points of the game will prevail.
The replacement for Youngs is Richard Wigglesworth, the Saracens scrum half. Wigglesworth is not a sniper, he is probably the best box-kicker in England and he plays at a club where he is expected to manage the game, play to the gameplan. He is not expected to be a solo artist.
In other words, Wigglesworth is not anyone’s idea of a “finisher”. He is selected as a finisher this weekend, though, because, primarily, he has only just come into the squad. He needs to learn and adapt.
However, once he has a game or two and a few more weeks’ training under his belt, once he knows the team and the game a bit better, then Jones will have another interesting decision to make. At that point, Jones could revert to a starter type and a finisher type, Wigglesworth could start and Care would be back on the bench with his speed and guile, again, held back until the end of the games.
That is the subtext to Saturday: is the finisher so good he should be a starter. Should England’s most-capped scrum half be finally, permanently released from the bench?