With just 12 games to go before the start of the World Cup, England captain Chris Robshaw is playing for his place in the side after Stuart Lancaster gave him a less than ringing endorsement this week.
In fact, but for injuries, illness, lack of form and unavailability, Lancaster would have been posed a selection dilemma regarding Robshaw and the No 7 position when recently announcing his squad for the autumn internationals.
Speaking ahead of the 8 November opener against the All Blacks the head coach refused to guarantee Robshaw’s place in the team and, ominously for the captain, went out of his way to name-check his rivals for the No 7 spot.
“People have to earn their right to get into the team,” said Lancaster. “I wouldn’t guarantee it to anyone. I don’t guarantee it to Chris Robshaw. It’s the basis of group dynamics – you have got to give everyone a fair and equal opportunity. Everyone has to earn the right. When you are on the phone telling a Calum Clark or a Semesa Rokoduguni that he is going to get a chance to come and train with England, it would be unfair to say actually [someone] has got a guaranteed pick.”
Robshaw is constantly compared with faster-breaking No 7s such as Michael Hooper, the highly rated Australian whose team will be the fourth and final visitors to Twickenham in November after New Zealand, South Africa and Samoa. But while Lancaster said: “I don’t see it as a disadvantage”, he admitted: “When you are national coach you deal with the cards you’ve got. It is different from when you’re a club coach and if you want a No 7 who can play like a centre, you go and recruit a Julian Salvi or a Hooper. If Matt Kvesic and Will Fraser continue to push they will genuinely provide that decision for me.”
Harlequin Robshaw wears No 7 for club and country but the actual roles differ. He plays left and right on the Quins scrums with Luke Wallace, and stands or jumps at the front or middle of line-outs. He tops the club’s tackle count, and could not work harder, but England are known to want him to do more “fetching” over the ball. He has also given up the club captaincy, a decision Lancaster said he was “very happy with”.
Among the other potential opensides, James Haskell of Wasps has spent most of the last week in hospital with a mystery virus and will not train for at least another week, as England gather tonight to start preparing to face the world champion All Blacks. Saracens’ Fraser has had a series of injuries and Lancaster said that while Kvesic has improved at Gloucester under the coaching of Laurie Fisher, he lacks Hooper’s ability to break tackles and accelerate through. Harlequins’ England Under-20 captain Jack Clifford is injured.
And then there is the out-of-reach Steffon Armitage, whose attempt to return to English rugby from international exile at Toulon was aborted. The French club indicated they might have released Armitage – who would be a rival for Robshaw’s position and offer a different style of play – if England had guaranteed him a squad place eading up to to next year’s World Cup.
As a youngster, Lancaster idolised the English flanker Peter Winterbottom. And the coach himself played for Leeds and Scotland Under-21 as “a No 7 who probably should have been a centre”. But he pointed out how Northampton had won the Premiership with “big, big back-rowers” and he is likely to pick Tom Wood, Robshaw and Billy Vunipola against New Zealand.
With injuries to at least nine players, Lancaster will add to his 33-man squad tonight, probably calling up Fraser and Kvesic, Exeter fly-half/centre Henry Slade, Bath wing Anthony Watson and Saracens scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth. Lancaster added: “We have 12 games to go before the World Cup, nine at Twickenham. Playing at Twickenham is important for us and getting on top of the southern hemisphere is an absolute imperative. We should be targeting to win all the games.”
Cup of cheer: When English clubs battle it out for the right to rule Europe
The first all-English showdown in the European Champions Cup in three seasons pits the London clubs Wasps against Harlequins against each other today. Past highlights include:
POOL STAGE, JANUARY 2012: Harlequins 20 Gloucester 14 Captain Chris Robshaw boldly gambles on scrums instead of a penalty kick, and a yellow card to Gloucester prop Nick Wood puts Quins on the road to victory.
QUARTER-FINAL, APRIL 11 2009: Leicester 20 Bath 15 Tigers’ French scrum-half Julien Dupuy catches Bath napping with the winning try just 14 seconds from time.
FINAL, 20 MAY 2007: Leicester 9 Wasps 25 Brilliant line-out ploys conjure two tries for the mighty Wasps in a second Heineken Cup triumph in the space of four seasons.
FINAL, 11 APRIL 2006: Leicester 12 Bath 15 Tigers’ fury over uncontested scrums and a last-minute wrong option by fly-half Andy Goode (left) hands victory to Bath.
FINAL, 11 APRIL 2004: Wasps 34 Gloucester 3 Lawrence Dallaglio claims one of five Wasps tries on the way to a league/European double for Wasps.Reuse content