England did precisely as well at last year's World Cup as those in touch with reality had anticipated, but only half as well as hoped by the vast multitudes who made the fundamental error of assuming Martin Johnson's stellar playing career automatically qualified him for the very different role of national manager. Fitting, then, at the dawning of a new red-rose age, that only around half of the lot that messed up then are likely to make the squad for next month's start of the Six Nations Championship.
Stuart Lancaster, the former Leeds coach promoted from the Rugby Football Union staff to guide England through the next few challenging weeks as caretaker, has been talking about clean slates and new brooms for a month now. Today, he will prove as good as his word by fast-tracking a group of young Premiership players – not to mention a youthful Pro12 member, the Scarlets No 8 Ben Morgan – into representative contention at the expense of some of the biggest names in English rugby.
As far as this Cumbrian is concerned, the past is another country. New Zealand, in this case.
Lancaster is at least as interested in skill as he is in size – perhaps the most crucial departure from the Johnson regime. He wants a second footballer in his midfield, rather than a Steady Eddie at No 10 and a couple of 24-carat bosh merchants at centre, and is equally keen to inject additional guile into a back-row unit that had its limitations exposed in the autumn by the likes of Juan Fernandez Lobbe, the brilliant Argentine No 8, and Imanol Harinordoquy, France's sensational Basque.
In this, Lancaster has some heavyweight support. "I'd prefer to see Stuart getting footballers in the team rather than worry about physicality," said Lawrence Dallaglio, the celebrated No 8 and England captain. "It's easier to put a footballer in the gym than it is to turn a gym monkey into a footballer."
Dallaglio was keen to talk about back-row options, seeing Quins' Chris Robshaw as a possible No 8 and Leicester's Tom Croft – a hit on the blind-side of the scrum with the Lions in 2009 but less effective with England – as a possible lock, freeing up a space for the likes of Morgan.
The balance of the breakaway unit will be crucial against a dangerous Scottish combination at Murrayfield next month. The coach has room for manoeuvre in this department: Lewis Moody, the World Cup captain, has retired; James Haskell has cut himself off by negotiating contracts in Japan and New Zealand; Nick Easter is heavily rumoured to be on his way out of the squad. If Lancaster was really bold, he would opt for the pace and panache of Saracens' Andy Saull at open-side flanker and play Wood elsewhere.
An opportunity will be spurned if Billy Twelvetrees of Leicester is not moved up from the second-string Saxons squad. England have long talked a good game about selecting and supporting a genuine footballer at inside centre, but invariably play a bad one when push comes to shove.Reuse content