American amateurs out to make a point against the Saxons
The Saracens prop Matt Stevens has every chance of moving onwards and upwards, the Gloucester captain Luke Narraway and his Bath-bound former colleague Dave Attwood remain semi-optimistic, and there are a couple of others – the Harlequins full-back Mike Brown, for instance – who are clinging to the driftwood of their hopes and dreams, but for the vast majority of the England Saxons, who open their Churchill Cup campaign against the United States in Northampton this evening, the here and now is all that matters.
When Martin Johnson, the England manager, names his training squad for the forthcoming World Cup in New Zealand, it will be full of people not playing in this tournament. The Americans? They're in a different place entirely. All those on show at Franklin's Gardens can legitimately think of themselves as World Cup contenders, with only five front-line players missing because of Premiership regulations on player access.
Two Saracens, the highly effective flexi-back Chris Wyles and lock Hayden Smith, are not available to the former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan, who will take the Eagles to All Black country in September. Nor is Leeds' Mike MacDonald. The super-rapid Biarritz wing Takudzwa Ngwenya is resting, while O'Sullivan has decided against picking the second-rower Samu Manoa, who has just signed for Saints. "Samu's deal at Franklin's Gardens doesn't begin until the start of July and if he got himself injured now, he could lose his contract," the coach explained. "The other England-based players are not with us because their clubs won't release them this early ... in fairness, that probably suits me because I know a lot about them already. It's good that I can concentrate on finding out more about others, because the last place I need to find out about them is in New Zealand."
O'Sullivan spent long enough coaching in rugby's elite tier to understand the advantages of professionalism. "The game in the States is amateur, and while everyone thinks we can just tap into the people who don't quite make it in American football, the reality is different," he continued. "When we approach them and tell them they'd be playing for free, they say: 'Why would I want to put my body through all that for nothing when I've just been paid for doing it?'.
"We have excellent athletes in our squad. What we don't have is a structure that gives them a high level of rugby week on week. That's why something like this is a big deal for us."
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