The matches between France and England in August will be crucial to determining their final World Cup squads
France are doing something different this year for their World Cup warm-up matches against England in August. Whereas for the back-to-back games in 2003 and 2007, the then coach Bernard Laporte had already decided on his final squad, Philippe Saint-André will make his final cut after the two clashes next month.
For the past three weeks the 36 players have been run ragged first at Marcoussis and then in the Alps; for five of them the pain experienced in July will be mild compared to the agony of being informed by Saint-André on 23 August that their services are no longer required.
Dreams shattered, hopes crushed, ambitions thwarted. Nothing but the humiliation of returning to your club and the prospect of watching the tournament on TV with that one question hammering away inside your head: ‘Why me?’
“All the players know that the final choice doesn’t rest with them,” captain Thierry Dusautoir told Midi Olympique on Monday. “The only thing to do, it’s to put in the best preparation possible [and] not to ask youself questions.”
England’s players are in a similar predicament ahead of the matches at Twickenham on 15 August and the Stade de France the following weekened. Stuart Lancaster has just brought his boys back from an intensive training camp in Colorado. It was a hell of a regime, by all accounts, but for 14 of the 45 players, it will have been in vain when Lancaster announces his final list of 31. According to assistant coach Andy Farrell, up to nine will be discarded before the warm-up matches and the rest after.
Lancaster and Saint-André will have already inked in the bulk of their squads but the two matches will certainly make or break the fates of a handful of players.
When England played France twice in August 2003 coach Clive Woodward used the games to make the final tweaks to his squad. Out went loosehead Graham Rowntree (who had propped the scrum for most of the previous two seasons) as Woodward opted for the versatility of Jason Leonard, who could play on either side of the scrum.
Versatility also came to Martin Corry’s aid as the utility back-five player was chosen ahead of lock Simon Shaw with Woodward left to admit: “Shaw would be in any other international team in the world and not to pick him or Graham Rowntree are the two hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my six years as head coach with England.”
Austin Healey, a regular in Woodward’s squad in the preceding years, also felt the bitter pain of rejection, later describing the experience as “the most down I’ve ever been”.
Contrast Healey’s emotion with that of Iain Balshaw and Stuart Abbott, neither of whom had been involved in England’s 2003 Grand Slam campaign. Nonetheless they were selected for the warm-up matches and the pair produced polished displays in the 45-14 thrashing of France in the second game at Twickenham. The South Africa-born Abbott made the World Cup squad and started the group games against Samoa and Uruguay. Though his career was subsequently curtailed by injury, a World Cup winners’ medal and an MBE isn’t a bad return for nine caps.
Balshaw hadn’t played for England for 18 months when he was selected for the warm-up matches. “I’d had a succession of injuries since coming back from the Lions tour of 2001,” he recalls. “For the 12 weeks before the two games against France I’d been suffering from tendonitis. So those two games were my last chance to show what I could do. I remember in the first half of the second game I just couldn’t get my hands on the ball and I was becoming desperate. Fortunately that changed in the second half and I scored a try and had some good runs.” Three months later Balshaw came on as a substitute in England’s World Cup final win over Australia.
Brian Ashton was the England coach in 2007 and he needed only one of the two warm-up games against France to trim his squad. Having seen his side slump to a 21-15 defeat to France at Twickenham, Ashton decided to jettison James Haskell, Nick Abendanon, Danny Cipriani, Toby Flood, Kevin Yates and Tom Palmer before the return fixture the following Saturday.
Eight years on, Haskell and Cipriani will be hoping they are more to Lancaster’s liking than they were Ashton’s. If they’re not, and they are returned to their clubs next month, their misery will be unimaginable. One rejection is bad enough, as Woodward acknowleged in 2003. “Regarding the remaining players who didn’t make it, it’s scant consolation for them that they have all made a significant contribution to England being successful.”
Balshaw’s advice for the current England crop is simple: “Lancaster will know already a lot of his squad,” he says. “But the two matches against France will be important because they’ll allow him to decide on the finer details. So no one can afford to be complacent. Everyone’s trying really hard to make the World Cup and if anyone does ease up in the two warm-up games they could find themselves pushed out.”