It has been obvious for weeks – pretty much since a badly behaved and wholly discredited England party returned to these shores following the World Cup trauma in New Zealand – that there would be some very heavy fallers on the personnel front ahead of the Six Nations Championship, but there was still one hell of a thud when they finally hit the ground yesterday. If Mark Cueto, Nick Easter, Shontayne Hape and the pantomime villain Mike Tindall already knew their international futures were behind them, they must have been wounded all over again by the formal confirmation. As for Delon Armitage, who did not foresee his omission... he may well leave the country because of it.
Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker coach, has emerged as his own man since being appointed before Christmas. By making 15 changes to the 32-man elite squad named by his predecessor Martin Johnson last August, the vast majority of them unenforced by retirement or long-term injury, he emphasised the point.
"This is a new era for English rugby," said the straight-talking Cumbrian, who is not naturally given to grand statements but could not quite help himself on this occasion. "It was right that we went to the World Cup with the group we did, but I always felt January 2012 would be a defining moment. Tough decisions have been made – some of them were very hard indeed – but we want to give an opportunity to people who have been on the cusp for some time and we want players who are going to be proud, excited and energised."
It was the nearest Lancaster came to addressing the issues that undermined the World Cup campaign – the excessive drinking, the nightclub canoodling – yet he still managed to make it clear that nothing of the sort would be tolerated under this regime. Tindall has known his fate for some time and there will be no way back.
"I don't think it's my decision to retire players from international rugby," Lancaster said. "A decision like that is for the player himself to make. But I've chosen this moment to bring in some exciting midfield talent and I explained that to him.
Some of his other discussions were equally awkward, not least the one involving Armitage, the London Irish full-back who spends much of his rugby life looking like a high-calibre attacking back and the rest of it wrestling with a self-destructive streak. Four bans last year, a visit to the sin bin this month – Armitage's temperament is a major problem and it lies at the heart of his ejection from the senior squad. He is now thought to be considering a move to France and could link up with his equally disaffected brother Steffon at Toulon.
"We met face to face but we didn't speak about him moving away," Lancaster said. "Again, it's a decision for Delon, although we've said that we want to see our best talent playing in England. The decision to drop him to the Saxons squad was not necessarily driven by the discipline aspect: it's just that we need to see people playing regularly and he hasn't had much game time." And why would that be? Because he spends so much of his rugby life under suspension.
Armitage was not the only World Cup back to receive a nasty shock: the Bath wing Matt Banahan was also dumped. But if Lancaster has taken away from certain individuals with one hand, he has used the other to bestow the gift of selection on a number of intriguing newcomers, most of whom are uncapped. The Gloucester finisher Charlie Sharples, the brilliant Saracens midfield prospect Owen Farrell, the youngster's South African-born centre partner Brad Barritt, the heart-and-soul Northampton scrum-half Lee Dickson and a couple of contrastingly-shaped Harlequins in Jordan Turner-Hall and Mike Brown – taken together, they represent an ambitious changing of the guard.Reuse content