By Alan Dymock
NO ONE has called him a school teacher since Best Team in the World™ was sent back over the equator, but England’s headmaster Stuart Lancaster now has the responsibility for caning Europe’s best.
Today his Elite Player Squad (EPS) was announced. Today his shape for the Six Nations became apparent. Today is the first day that the vanquisher of the mighty Blacks will be openly questioned since his moment of autumn glory.
On the one hand Lancaster has been bold. The victory over the reigning World champions has afforded the former Leeds Carnegie director of rugby a bit of freedom to try new things. He has rewarded form and Premiership power by calling up the creative Billy Twelvetrees and industrious Calum Clark, handing them each a chance for their first cap.
Dynamic youngsters Joe Launchbury and Mako Vunipola also join the exciting Freddie Burns and improving Tom Youngs in earning elevation to the EPS.
However, with great results come great responsibility and with great responsibility comes greater fear of falling flat on your face. In truth the selection of Clark as a second-row may hoist a few eyebrows, with the utility forward more famous for his 32-match ban for viciously breaking Rob Hawkins’ elbow last season, than his link play, yet Lancaster is all for giving players second chances, see Danny Care. There are no incredibly contentious selections.
The human wrecking ball, Billy Vunipola, is afforded the chance to train with the EPS, but he has not been handed an EPS place alongside his brother, Mako. Instead Thomas Waldrom has retained a spot, James Haskell returns and Tom Croft is back in despite his fragile state after only just recovering from neck surgery.
Twelve-cap David Strettle is brought in after an Autumn absence to replace Charlie Sharples, despite some commentators calling for the more explosive figures of Kyle Eastmond or Christian Wade to be drafted in, with the latter, especially, unlucky not to get the nod.
This may not seem all that telling, but when Lancaster drops lines like, “the opportunity for David Strettle has come alongside a move to the left wing (at Saracens). His form has been outstanding but Mike Brown was fantastic there against the All Blacks,” you know it is an issue of back-up. So why are the unknown quantities not off to big-boys training to further improve their trade?
On the plus side, these tyros do earn a step onto the first rung, joining the England Saxons squad with lauded league convert Joel Tomkins and tireless grafter Will Fraser. Alongside the dropped bodies of Mouritz Botha, Phil Dowson and Tom Palmer, this should be a combative Saxons squad that faces up against their Irish Wolfhound counterparts on January 25. Also keep an eye on Matt Kvesic and Anthony Allen who may just shine in this Saxons squad.
There is no grade, no report card for Lancaster. He has backed himself and should be allowed to do so at this stage. However, whether his conservative calls are held against his positive ones is largely irrelevant.
The fact that England have plentiful options should worry the other Six Nations sides, who are worrying more about whether they have enough able bodies to call up, let alone options.
Here are the England squads:
England EPS squad
Backs: C Ashton (Saracens), B Barritt (Saracens), M Brown (Harlequins), F Burns (Gloucester Rugby), D Care (Harlequins), L Dickson (Northampton Saints), O Farrell (Saracens), T Flood (Leicester Tigers), B Foden (Northampton Saints), A Goode (Saracens), J Joseph (London Irish), D Strettle (Saracens), M Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester Rugby), B Youngs (Leicester Tigers).
Forwards: C Clark (Northampton Saints), A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Cole (Leicester Tigers), T Croft (Leicester Tigers), D Hartley (Northampton Saints), J Haskell (London Wasps), T Johnson (Exeter Chiefs), J Launchbury (London Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton Saints), J Marler (Harlequins), B Morgan (Gloucester Rugby), G Parling (Leicester Tigers), C Robshaw (Harlequins), M Vunipola (Saracens), T Waldrom (Leicester Tigers), D Wilson (Bath Rugby), T Wood (Northampton Saints), T Youngs (Leicester Tigers).
England Saxons squad
Backs: N Abendanon (Bath Rugby), A Allen (Leicester Tigers), T Biggs (Bath Rugby), E Daly (London Wasps), K Eastmond (Bath Rugby), G Ford (Leicester Tigers), G Lowe (Harlequins), J May (Gloucester Rugby), U Monye (Harlequins), J Simpson (London Wasps), C Sharples (Gloucester Rugby), J Tomkins (Saracens), J Turner-Hall (Harlequins), C Wade (London Wasps), R Wigglesworth (Saracens).
Forwards: M Botha (Saracens), N Catt (Bath Rugby), L Deacon (Leicester Tigers), P Doran Jones (Northampton Saints), P Dowson (Northampton Saints), W Fraser (Saracens), J Gray (Harlequins), G Kitchener (Leicester Tigers), S Knight (Gloucester Rugby), M Kvesic (Worcester Warriors), M Mullan (Worcester Warriors), D Paice (London Irish), T Palmer (London Wasps), G Robson (Harlequins), E Slater (Leicester Tigers), H Thomas (Sale Sharks), B Vunipola (London Wasps).