Stuart Lancaster has had a dramatic change of heart by recalling Nick Easter and Danny Cipriani to England's RBS Six Nations squad. Ralph Ellis fears it's a sign the England coach has lost his way...
"The betting reflects the confusion. England are 3.02/1 favourites to be the outright Six Nations winner, yet Wales are odds-on at 1.9110/11 to beat them at the Millenium Stadium when the tournament opens on Friday February 6th."
When it comes to talking a good game, Stuart Lancaster is right up there with the best of them. He's got all the coaching buzz words, things like "development", "decision making", "team culture" and "buying into our values".
When he took over the Red Rose after the shambles of the 2011 World Cup, there's no doubt he made a difference. He brought a more professional and modern approach, and he gave chances to young stars like Owen Farrell to step onto the big stage and deliver.
But somewhere along the way he seems to have lost a lot of the direction and clarity that marked his first year or so in the job - and the latest selection for the RBS Six Nations, a squad chosen with the World Cup in mind, seems to muddy the picture even more.
Nick Easter, flushed away in disgrace for allegedly being the player who muttered about "that's £35,000 down the toilet" after England's quarter-final exit to France in Auckland, is back again and all is forgiven. Danny Cipriani, written off as too much of a maverick for Lancaster's squeaky clean regime, returns at fly half. And Dylan Hartley, whose disciplinary record would make Joey Barton look like a saint, stays in with yet another final warning about his conduct.
Lancaster has tried to justify the change in selection policy with this peculiar phrase: "The challenge when I came in was to win and develop the team at the same time. Now the cycle has reached a point where the development bit stops. It is about the winning."
Well, excuse me, but shouldn't it always have been about the winning? And isn't winning the best way to develop an international team anyway?
If Lancaster had been focusing for the last three-and-a-bit years only on developing the team, surely he shouldn't be making dramatic changes now. His side should be geared and grooved, and settled and ready to go. Instead it is undergoing big alterations in key positions.
The betting reflects the confusion. England are 3.02/1 favourites to be the outright Six Nations winner, yet Wales are odds-on at 1.9110/11 to beat them at the Millenium Stadium when the tournament opens on Friday February 6. Meanwhile Ireland are 3.259/4 favourites to lift the triple crown with England at 4.67/2 and Wales 5.69/2.
Cipriani's return is as muddled as any of the issues. Despite his outstanding club form with Sale this season he is being told he's number four in the pecking order of potential fly-halves for the first game and has to prove his worth in training.
The 27-year-old is unquestionably the number ten who would bring the most flair to make use of the ball that can be delivered by a powerful pack of forwards. But does Lancaster want flair? A lot of his tactics so far have been rigid. And if he has changed his mind then is there enough time to make a new policy work?
Lancaster will go on talking the talk, there's no doubt. But with a home World Cup rushing up towards us it's no longer the time for that - it's time he has to also walk the walk.