The England head coach has prioritised versatility in his 33-man group
Steve Borthwick suggested positional flexibility had weighed heavily on his mind when finalising his England Rugby World Cup squad which did not include Henry Slade and Alex Dombrandt.
Borthwick named his final 33-man squad at Twickenham on Monday with Exeter Chiefs centre Slade the headline omission. Harlequins No 8 Dombrandt had started all six of Borthwick’s games in charge since he took over from Eddie Jones in December but missed out alongside Tom Willis with Billy Vunipola the only specialist No 8 included.
Rugby World Cup teams are allowed two more players than 2019 and with Borthwick opting for a 19-14 forwards-backs split and deciding that he needed three players in key positions such as the front row and the half-backs, a price was placed on utility.
Slade lost out to Joe Marchant, who was one of the few to impress in defeat to Wales on Saturday and can play on the wing, while the ability of flankers Lewis Ludlam, Tom Curry and Ben Earl to cover No 8 was deemed sufficient.
Borthwick said: “I’ve decided we will have three players for key positions. What that means is in other areas of the team we need to have positional flexibility. Henry along with all players not in the squad are disappointed. They all want to represent their country and England. Each one I know is going to be ready to go should that call come and we require them.
“There are always good players that are going to miss out on the squad. I think he’s (Alex Dombrandt) a very, very good player. There’s a lot of competition in that back row. Lewis Ludlam’s ability to play in all three positions. Ben Earl 7 and 8 and Tom Curry 7, 8 – he played 6 at the last World Cup. It’s about making the decisions and having the right combinations.”
Vunipola is only just coming back to full fitness after a knee injury and was overlooked during the Six Nations but when asked whether it was a risk to select him as the only No 8, Borthwick remained defiant.
He added: “He’s been fantastic. He has worked so hard to come back from his injury. He looks as fit as I’ve ever seen him; in great shape.
“There are a number of points. One of which is the opportunity to work with players over a period of time.
“We average over 40 caps with an average age of 26. There are 13 from the 23 in the 2019 World Cup final. We have a group of players who are experienced and understand World Cup rugby. That’s exciting – because it blends with players who are at their first tournament.
“This group of players are some of the most competitive people I’ve ever met. They want to win anything.”
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