The nobility are by nature a conservative bunch, so it was no great shock yesterday to see Sir Clive Woodward sticking by the men who won the World Cup in Australia a couple of months ago.
Twenty-nine of the 31 players who did the deed down Sydney way remain in the coach's thinking for the forthcoming Six Nations' Championship - Martin Johnson, who has retired, and Dan Luger, who has disappeared into the rugby badlands of southern France, are the exceptions - and with Lawrence Dallaglio reclaiming the captaincy, there was a strong sense of continuity about the England coach's latest squad announcement.
But Woodward's ascent to the aristocracy has not made him an old fogey overnight. Henry Paul, a controversial figure at the best of times, is back in the red rose fold after being unceremoniously ditched in 2002, while three players - the Bath outside-half Olly Barkley, his front-row club-mate Matt Stevens and the seriously dynamic Sale forward Chris Jones - have been promoted from the national academy. Paul, in particular, could press for a starting place against Italy in Rome on 15 February.
"I would like to offer a big welcome back to Henry, who has been in outstanding form for Gloucester and is selected on merit," Woodward said. He could not, in all conscience, have stated otherwise. Paul fell from grace because the England hierarchy found themselves questioning his commitment to the cause, and there is little doubt that the former rugby league international from New Zealand has his awkward moments. But there have been flashes of undiluted rugby genius from him this season, and now that he has made himself a home in the inside centre position, he will challenge hard for a second Test cap.
Woodward named 43 players for next week's training get-together in Surrey, seven of whom are either too badly injured to be considered for the trip to Rome or are struggling to make the cut. The coach confirmed that three midfielders - Stuart Abbott of Wasps, Mike Tindall of Bath and Charlie Hodgson of Sale - were out of the running for the opening game, along with two Leicester forwards, Julian White and Lewis Moody. Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Catt, who combined so effectively in the latter stages of the World Cup, are merely doubtful, having played next to no rugby since returning from Australia.
Dallaglio, who was on the field for the whole of England's seven-match World Cup adventure, was never seriously threatened as Johnson's immediate successor, despite the presence of seven other occasional England captains in the squad. "Lawrence was the stand-out choice," confirmed Woodward, who added that the honour would be bestowed on a match-by-match basis. Contrary to popular belief, this has always been the coach's way. Johnson may have performed the role brilliantly between 1999 and 2003, but neither he nor Woodward saw it as a job for life.
"I am very pleased to accept the responsibility," said Dallaglio, who had been Woodward's initial choice as the clean-cut face of England's on-field leadership in 1997.
"It is a huge honour and privilege. Martin certainly set a high standard; he is a world-class player and a great loss to us, although I respect his decision to retire. But all teams move on and evolve, and we are no different. I intend to continue working closely with Clive and the other coaches in an effort to take England to the next level."
Unsurprisingly, given the size of the squad, Woodward has introduced fresh blood in most areas. Barkley is a notable addition to the coach's options at stand-off, just as Ollie Smith of Leicester is capable of overturning the status quo at centre. Stevens is a prop of staggering potential, Jones a player of rich potential at second row as well as at No 8. The one glaring omission is at scrum-half, where Woodward is standing rigidly by the old guard of Matthew Dawson, Kyran Bracken and Andy Gomarsall. Both Harry Ellis, the young Leicester half-back, and Martyn Wood of Bath will be disappointed - especially Wood, who flew to Perth as injury cover during the pool stage of the World Cup.
Ireland, meanwhile, have named Brian O'Driscoll as their Six Nations captain, despite the centre's continuing hamstring problems. The appointment may be premature in the sense that O'Driscoll is by no means certain to recover full fitness in time for the opening match with France in Paris in a little over a fortnight's time - David Humphreys, Ronan O'Gara, Reggie Corrigan, Paul O'Connell and Anthony Foley have been grouped together in a vice-captaincy quintet - but if the Dubliner makes a decent fist of the job, he will be a live contender to lead the Lions in New Zealand next year.
ENGLAND SIX NATIONS TRAINING SQUAD
BACKS: S Abbott (Wasps), I Balshaw (Bath), O Barkley (Bath), K Bracken (Saracens), M Catt (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton), M Dawson (Northampton), A Gomarsall (Gloucester), P Grayson (Northampton), W Greenwood (Harlequins), C Hodgson (Sale), A King (Wasps), J Lewsey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), H Paul (Gloucester), J Robinson (Sale), J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), O Smith (Leicester), M Tindall (Bath), J Wilkinson (Newcastle, vice captain).
FORWARDS: N Back (Leicester), S Borthwick (Bath), M Corry (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps, captain), D Grewcock (Bath), R Hill (Saracens), C Jones (Sale), B Kay (Leicester), J Leonard (Harlequins), L Moody (Leicester), T Palmer (Leeds), M Regan (Leeds), G Rowntree (Leicester), A Sanderson (Sale), S Shaw (Wasps), M Stevens (Bath), S Thompson (Northampton), A Titterrell (Sale), P Vickery (Gloucester, vice captain), D West (Leicester), J White (Leicester), T Woodman (Gloucester), J Worsley (Wasps).Reuse content