It's less than 12 months til England's first World Cup game, and the back row is still up for debate. Here we investigate the pros and cons of Toulon's Armitage...
Roger Uttley believes Stuart Lancaster is gambling by not selecting Steffon Armitage and will have to think again should England come a cropper in the QBE autumn series.
“Is Stuart cutting off his nose to spite his face? It’s a calculated risk on his part,” says Uttley, the former England captain and back-five forward. “He’s proved to be a very shrewd operator and has invested a lot of time and effort to get the squad to where it is. But it’s a calculated risk not to include Armitage.
“England are a top-four team but they’re still off the pace. For the autumn Tests they need to win two of the four games as a minimum and be competitive in the other two. If they don’t beat Samoa and Australia, big questions will be asked. The games against New Zealand and South Africa will be tight. You can ignore the last Test in New Zealand (in June) because that was a game too far. The first two Tests were good performances and England emerged with some credit.
“The problem is that New Zealand are still all-firing. The margins against South Africa and New Zealand will be crucial. If they get thumped then England have real problems. If they lose by more than two scores then it’s cause for concern and he (Lancaster) may have to go down the ‘exceptional circumstances’ route.”
RFU policy decrees that you must play in the Aviva Premiership (or below) to be considered for England selection, though that ‘exceptional circumstances’ proviso allows Lancaster crucial latitude. And although approving of the France-based Armitage, Uttley fully understands Lancaster’s intransigence on the issue.
“Armitage has the advantage of playing in a formidable Toulon XV, which helps his case enormously. He doesn’t have to try to do other people’s jobs, he can concentrate on being his own man.
“Of course, even in that environment he’s been getting Man of the Match awards and Player of the Season. But what impact would his inclusion have on the England squad? You can pull out the best 15 individuals, whack them altogether, but it doesn’t necessarily make a good team. You need the right combinations. Is selection a science or an art? Stuart Lancaster in his tenure of office has relied on his experience within the English system, people he has dealt with.”
The failure of Toulon and Bath to strike a deal last week hasn’t made the Armitage question go away. Some very good judges of rugby players, including Will Greenwood, Lewis Moody and Sir Clive Woodward, have argued for the inclusion of Europe’s undisputed turnover king and perhaps the only Englishman who could match Wallaby captain Michael Hooper stride for stride in next year’s World Cup crucial pool meeting. Armitage, remember, made a competition-best 19 turnovers in last season’s Heineken Cup thanks to his immense strength over the ball at breakdowns, and his ball carrying (19 at Ulster last weekend) is almost as impressive, which is why Toulon sometimes pick the 5ft 9in powerhouse at No 8.
Area of strength
Another member of the Armitage fan club is Budge Pountney, the former Scotland openside now working for the RPA, although he sees the Toulon player as an impact player rather than a starter for England.
“Would Armitage make a difference? You have to say yes. He’s a fantastic player and is performing extremely well in the brutal league that is the Top 14. He wins turnover ball, he carries, he’s good on his feet. He has all the prerequisites and the ability to come off the bench and make a real impact, so the coaches have to look seriously at him. The French love him and if he was playing in England it would be a no-brainer having him in the squad.”
Regardless of the clamour, Lancaster is set to keep faith with the flankers who’ve helped take England to their current world three ranking. Skipper Robshaw (27 out of 30 Tests under Lancaster) and Wood (19 out of the past 20) have become automatic choices, Pountney praising their “total consistency at international level”.
Could Armitage slot in at No 8? Again, it seems far-fetched. Not since the 30-3 rout in Cardiff, in March 2013, have England started a game without an out-and-out ball carrier at No 8, and the selection of Billy Vunipola – who, unlike Ben Morgan, can make yardage from a standing start – is a given. His 18.4 carries per match in this year’s Six Nations was the highest figure by far and his average gain of 3.5m was second only to Louis Picamoles.
Looking for an edge
With only one autumn series and one Six Nations to go before RWC 2015, it could also be argued that any challengers need to come from within, not from a player (Armitage) who was last capped nearly five years ago under a different regime.
That keeps the flame flickering for the in-form James Haskell and Matt Kvesic, and undermines slightly the challenge of Calum Clark, who for reasons of ill fortune is still to be capped.
Part of a Northampton pack with the best ruck retention rate in the Premiership, Clark brings a physicality that will make any opponent think twice, and his propensity for the ‘dark arts’ – witness his pinning of Ospreys hooker Scott Baldwin last weekend that earned Saints a penalty for not rolling away – is to be admired. After all, the All Blacks will be up to the same tricks.
“Clark is an absolute grafter,” says Pountney. “He has a hard edge and does all the nasty jobs, like clearing out. He’s a physical, gnarly individual and you need that, you need a bit of edge.”
England will need a bit of everything in the back row if they’re to silence the southern hemisphere big guns in November, but Steffon Armitage is one weapon they’re choosing to do without.
Check out Steffon Armitage’s highlights below…