Thursday 27 June 2019

Ian McGeechan: 'Saracens stars unfortunate not to be regulars on the international stage'

Alex Goode (l) and Saracens’ Sean Maitland celebrate winning the Champions Cup. Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Wire
Alex Goode (l) and Saracens’ Sean Maitland celebrate winning the Champions Cup. Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Wire

Ian McGeechan

It was not quite chucking the Calcutta Cup down Princes Street but I enjoyed the reports of Alex Goode's "epic three-day bender" in the wake of Saracens' Champions Cup victory last weekend. It was a bit of a throwback to the amateur days.

I have no problem with players letting their hair down. They have to be able to switch off and there needs to be appropriate time made for that, particularly after a big game.

It is about respect. I remember giving the players some time off after the second Lions Test in 1997 and they took a few beers to the beach and never returned! They rolled up the next morning at 9am looking bleary-eyed. But at key moments they were always there to be counted and never let the team down.

Rugby - and people often forget this - is only part science. It is a game of emotion. Team bonding and team spirit is a large part of what makes the Lions so special and a large part of what has made Saracens into the force they are today.

You would be hard-pressed to find a player with a better attitude than Goode. It was no surprise to see him named European Player of the Year in the wake of Saracens' win. The number of carries he made last Saturday alone was very impressive. Goode's ability to read a game is second to none.

Naturally, some were calling for him to be given further England recognition. He is only 31 and has just won his third Champions Cup in the space of four years. But a coach may look at different priorities for his choice of player. Elliot Daly is clearly Eddie Jones's man at full-back and that is fine by me.

Daly may not have the positional skills of Goode (yet), but he brings plenty to the party with his footballing ability, his speed across the ground and his kicking game.

I think Goode is just one of those unlucky players when it comes to England. He has won 21 caps, but has never quite done enough to make himself undroppable, suffering with injury at inopportune moments.

Ultimately, rugby is a subjective game, and coaches have their own opinions. Goode has never quite fitted into any England coach's masterplan.

His team-mate Brad Barritt, who has 26 England caps, is another who can feel hard done by. Barritt, like Goode, was immense last weekend. Another players' player, someone who puts his body on the line, tackles hard, carries well.

I think Barritt paid the price a bit for England's failure at the 2015 World Cup because he should really have carried on being selected, at least until Manu Tuilagi's return. He offers so much at 12, not least leadership.

Would England have lost all that momentum in those five minutes after half-time against Scotland in March had Barritt and Goode been on the pitch? Jones has repeatedly said he is trying to develop leaders in the England team. Well here are two, ready-made, whose natural instinct is to get hold of games when the team is under pressure. When England were in their losing rut, here were two players who would not have accepted it.

I know at the very least they would have taken a lot of the pressure off Owen Farrell who, rather uncharacteristically, lost control in that Scotland game. You can see by the way Farrell interacts with Barritt and Goode how much he values their input.

The game is littered, of course, with players who probably deserve more international recognition but for whatever reason do not get it.

Players like Don Armand, who made his 100th appearance for Exeter this weekend and still has just two England caps, both of which came as a replacement. Like Christian Wade, who went off to play NFL this season because he couldn't quite make it into the England set-up despite his prolific try-scoring for Wasps. Then there is Danny Cipriani, another for whom injuries (and well-documented errors of judgement) have curtailed his international career. Danny still has just 16 Test caps, extraordinary for a player of his talent.

Luck and timing play such a big role. When I won my first Scotland cap in 1972, I was sixth choice. Three of those ahead of me in the pecking order retired, and two others got injured. Even then I was lucky because, after making my debut at 10 against the All Blacks, Colin Telfer returned to the team. I would have been dropped but for the fact that the coach, Bill Dickinson, had seen me playing in the centres for the North East counties against the All Blacks a few weeks earlier when we had played well in a 9-6 loss. So I was moved to the centres.

In the end, I won 32 caps over a seven-year period and was never dropped! But I can honestly say that, but for Dickinson's presence at that game, I might never have had the career I did.


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