Stuart Lancaster has announced a 50-man training squad in advance of the Rugby World Cup where the conversation was dominated with who was in rather than who was out
However you judge Stuart Lancaster in the fullness of time, you cannot deny he is a man of conviction. In the Shakespeare room deep within Twickenham, he laid out his reasons for picking the bulbous England training squad with a stirring rhetoric that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Henry 1V.
He chose to address the admissions first, specifically with an impassioned speech about the continued non-selection of foreign players, with Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon clearly in his thoughts.
Lancaster stressed that the matter has been discussed at length, with the bottom line was he wanted to see all his players playing against each other, citing the 30 players who will cross swords at the weekend in the play-offs. He felt it was imperative to protect long-term development of the game. He was quick to point out he had not been under pressure from England squad members. Although you feel he would have been under no illusions as to the depth of feeling, with Tom Youngs and Tom Wood, already going public by saying their inclusion could be unsettling for all those players who had been building for one common aim for the last three years.
It’s plain that Steffon Armitage can consider himself very unfortunate to have missed out on World Cup selection, when he is clearly the foremost fetcher qualified to play for England but it could be argued he knew the policy – which has not changed in Lancaster’s time. Lancaster clearly feels that in Chris Robshaw, Matt Kvesic, Calum Clark and supplementary breakdown experts Dan Cole and Joe Launchbury he is well-covered. He can only hope that swat breakdown duos Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Michael Hooper and David Pocock don’t leave England as crimson as the Red Rose in the pool stages.
In Lancaster’s eyes, it is the best decision for England in the ‘short, medium and long term’ to stop an exodus of English players to France, frequently citing New Zealand as another country who had stuck to this line successfully. Nick Abendanon and the forgotten Toby Flood could consider themselves firmly in this bracket. The door is well and truly ferme.
The other big talking point was the omission on Manu Tuilagi, who had been pleaded guilty to assault and criminal damage. Again, Lancaster stayed true to his conviction, hammering home it was the right line to take and that a lack of discipline could not be tolerated. ‘It was a difficult week, I’m disappointed for Manu, the coaches and the country. He is a high-quality player’ were sincerely conveyed.
There were also comforting words for those absent through injury including Leicester’s Tom Croft, ‘a Lion and a brilliant lineout forward’ and Saints’ Ben Foden ‘he won’t be far off by August, we can’t rule anything out’. It is also expected that the outstanding Joe Simpson will be closer to a return.
Others name checked including the Exeter Chiefs strongman Dave Ewers, who has lost out due to the strength-in-depth in the back row and the quicksilver Christian Wade, who obviously has to continue to work on his defensive game.
As for those who have been included in the squad, Andy Farrell was quick to justify Sam Burgess’ inclusion, even though the England management are still sure whether he’s a No 6 or No 12. Clearly, they want to see how far Burgess, who has impressed them with his leadership qualities, can progress before the squad is cut to 31-men in late August.
Of the youngsters, Maro Itoje and Luke Cowan-Dickie were also two of 11 players under 23, who had impressed the management.
Then there are the comeback kids, Chris Ashton and David Strettle who can give themselves a congratulatory pat on the back for forcing their way back into the squad by pulling up their sleeves and crossing the whitewash.
So what next? For those not involved at the weekend, the next chance for fringe players to impress is against the Barbarians, then it’s three weeks on a sun-lounger and for the chosen few a fitness camp in Denver. By late August the squad will be trimmed, lean and cut to 31.
As Stuart Lancaster said, with less than four months to go, ‘it’s game on’.
England 50-man training squad:
Full-backs: Mike Brown, Alex Goode
Wings: Chris Ashton, Jonny May, Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, Marland Yarde
Centres: Brad Barritt, Sam Burgess, Luther Burrell, Elliot Daly, Kyle Eastmond, Billy Twelvetrees, Henry Slade
Fly-halves: Danny Cipriani, George Ford, Owen Farrell, Stephen Myler
Scrum-halves: Ben Youngs, Danny Care, Richard Wigglesworth, Lee Dickson, Joe Simpson
Hookers: Luke Cowan Dickie, Dylan Hartley, Tom Youngs, Rob Webber
Props: Kieran Brookes, Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, Joe Marler, Matt Mullan, Mako Vunipola, David Wilson
Locks: Dave Attwood, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling
Flankers: Calum Clark, James Haskell, Chris Robshaw, Matt Kvesic, Ed Slater, Tom Wood
No 8s: Nick Easter, Ben Morgan, Billy Vunipola
Club by club breakdown
Exeter Chiefs: 3
Sale Sharks: 1
Newcastle Falcons: 1
Average age: 26
Players 23 and under: 11