When England name their World Cup squad I don’t expect there to be any untried young players in the 30, writes London Irish Director of Rugby Toby Booth. If you’re going to a World Cup as a player, you’re going to play. It’s all very well fast-tracking people but you can’t afford the luxury of someone who isn’t a certainty, and Martin Johnson will be looking at tried-and-tested people.
Even so, some good young talents emerged this season. Jonathan Joseph really kicked on at my club, London Irish, and scored a lot of tries and he was still under 20. George Lowe at Harlequins has been exceptionally good, Joe Simpson at Wasps has had a good season, as has Nick Wood at Gloucester.
Manu Tuilagi is another young player who’s done exceptionally well. He creates havoc with the ball in hand and the future of the Tuilagi dynasty at Leicester looks assured! I’m sure he’s very disappointed about the finale of it all, as he was banned for five weeks for punching Chris Ashton, but he’s a young man who will have to learn by his mistakes. Whether I think his ban is right or not, that’s what he got! The entry points are there for different levels of offence and if they’re consistently applied, that’s fine.
There are players who have come through difficult circumstances to succeed this season, like Matt Stevens and Topsy Ojo, who had 14 months out injured, then scored ten league tries. Time out often refreshes people’s ambition and desire. Matt Stevens has shown extreme resilience to come back from his drugs ban. I take my hat off to him. He’s put himself back into a healthy lifestyle and is playing exceptionally well and he’s one who will be on the shortlist to go to the World Cup. I don’t know where he sits in the pecking order but with a 22-man match squad you need props who can play both sides like he can.
The Aviva Premiership was a more interesting place this season with Exeter bringing a new freshness to it. The new law interpretations made the game a better spectacle and there’s a better balance between attack and defence. There are still issues over the scrum, which must be resolved because scrum ball is the best attacking ball to play with. We have to look at the consistency of approach, not just from the referees but from the RFU and players and coaches too. We need to think outside the box.
On the negative side, everyone was a bit surprised about Wasps’ demise. They were fifth when they changed their director of rugby (Tony Hanks left on 17 February) and they then slipped to ninth (they won seven matches out of 14 before Hanks left and two out of eight afterwards). There’s major upheaval going on at Sale too. There is lots of evolution and change. It’s a very exciting time now. The World Cup will be a fantastic test for England and there’s no pressure on them. Martin Johnson and his coaches will be pleased with what’s gone on this year. They’ve fast-tracked experience into a number of young players.
Ultimately you would be happier as an England fan if the World Cup was another 12 months away because you would see an even greater group of England players by then, but they will go to New Zealand with great confidence.
This article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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