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 charged with steering the national side through what promises to be an exceptionally testing tournament – the first game, against Scotland in Edinburgh on 4 February, is a real brute – has emerged as his own man since being appointed by a new generation of Twickenham grandees 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. The important thing for us is to see everyone channelling that energy in the right way. As a group of coaches, we're pretty down to earth. We expect to work with a down-to-earth squad."
It was the nearest Lancaster came to addressing the issues that undermined the World Cup campaign – the excessive drinking, the nightclub canoodling and all the rest of it – yet he still managed to make it abundantly clear that nothing of the sort would be tolerated under this new regime. Tindall, the long-serving centre and occasional red-rose captain who did more than anyone to set the hares of controversy running all over New Zealand's South Island during the early part of the tournament, 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 – Brad Barritt, Jordan Turner-Hall, Henry Trinder – and I explained that to him. We met for an hour and a half and talked about all sorts of things. It was one discussion among many."
Some of those 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 that, pretty much on its own, keeps the governing body's disciplinary class gainfully employed. 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 reported. "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 Barritt, the heart-and-soul Northampton scrum-half Lee Dickson and a couple of contrastingly-shaped Harlequins in Turner-Hall and Mike Brown – taken together, they represent an ambitious changing of the guard.
Lancaster might have been even more adventurous: if he has been cautious anywhere, it is in his refusal to include the Leicester midfielder Billy Twelvetrees and the Saracens flanker Andy Saull in his Six Nations party. As a consequence, England will prepare for the Calcutta Cup trip to Scotland top-heavy with hard-tackling, non-kicking, ultra-direct inside centres and Jack-of-all-trade flankers who are best suited to the blind-side role but are required to flirt with life on the open side. "Six and a halves," they are called in the trade and their number was increased by the call-up for Calum Clark, the uncapped Northampton forward. John Barclay, the ball-winning Glasgow breakaway with a canine streak as wide as Loch Ness, must be licking his lips at the prospect.
The coaches fought their corner on both Twelvetrees and Saull, although the forwards strategist, Graham Rowntree, did admit that the latter's performances at second-string Saxons level over the next three weeks or so would be watched very closely. "We know we don't have an out-and-out open-side poacher, a groundhog flanker, and it's our job to develop one," said the sole survivor of the World Cup back-room team. As he went to the global gathering, the importance of playing top-level Tests with a specialist breakaway clearly registered with him.
Thanks to the Byzantine mysteries of the RFU's player access agreement with the Premiership clubs, Lancaster and Rowntree – not to mention the backs coach Andy Farrell, who will join England from Saracens on a part-time basis when the Six Nations build-up begins in earnest – do not have an entirely free hand in selection, hence their decision to retain some injured players ahead of the summer tour of South Africa. The Bath hooker Lee Mears and the Leicester lock Louis Deacon, neither of whom are likely to play a part in the forthcoming tournament, fall into this category.
Other walking wounded include the first-choice No 10 Toby Flood, who may yet be fit for the Murrayfield date, and the Northampton forward Courtney Lawes. Their incapacitation has persuaded Lancaster to call four players out of the Saxons and into the senior party: the Bath lock Dave Attwood, the Leicester second-rower Geoff Parling, the Saracens back Alex Goode and the Gloucester centre Trinder, who was within a gnat's crotchet of making the Six Nations 32 as of right.
A miss is as good as a mile at this level of rugby, but it could have been worse for Trinder. As Tindall, his clubmate, will no doubt confirm.
England's Six Nations squad
Mouritz Botha (Saracens) 29/1
Calum Clark (Northampton) 22/0
Alex Corbisiero (London Irish) 23/10
Dan Cole (Leicester) 24/23
Tom Croft (Leicester) 26/31
Louis Deacon (Leicester) 31/29
Phil Dowson (Northampton) 30/0
Dylan Hartley (Northampton) /25 /34
Courtney Lawes (Northampton) 22/13
Joe Marler (Harlequins) 21/0
Lee Mears (Bath Rugby) 32/38
Ben Morgan (Scarlets) 22/0
Tom Palmer (Stade Français)/32/33
Chris Robshaw (Harlequins) 25/1
Matt Stevens (Saracens) 29/39
Rob Webber (Wasps) 25/0
David Wilson (Bath) 26/19
Tom Wood (Northampton) 25/9
Chris Ashton (Northampton) 24/18
Brad Barritt (Saracens) 25/0
Mike Brown (Harlequins) 26/3
Lee Dickson (Northampton) 26/0
Owen Farrell (Saracens) 20/0
Toby Flood (Leicester) 26/46
Ben Foden (Northampton) 26/22
Charlie Hodgson (Saracens) 31/36
Joe Simpson (Wasps) 32/1
Charlie Sharples (Gloucester) 22/1
David Strettle (Saracens) 28/7
Manu Tuilagi (Leicester) 20/7
Jordan Turner-Hall (Harlequins) 24/0
Ben Youngs (Leicester) 22/17
4 Feb Scotland (a); 11 Feb Italy (a); 25 Feb Wales (h); 11 Mar France (a); 17 Mar Ireland (h)