Seven uncapped players will head out to All Black country for the start of next month’s Test series with the reigning world champions, and the very best of luck to them: as many an England rookie has found to his acute discomfort in recent seasons, the average New Zealander makes few allowances for inexperience. Come to think of it, sympathy will be in equally short supply for those travelling with caps in the kitbag – especially the men charged with performing the No 10 duties in Auckland, where the hosts have not lost in 20 years.
You can almost hear Richie McCaw and company smacking their lips at the prospect of Freddie Burns of Gloucester – or, better still, Danny Cipriani of Sale – taking the field at Eden Park. There is nothing they enjoy more up there in the North Island than roughing up an English outside-half: ask poor old Charlie Hodgson, who really copped it during the ill-starred 2008 tour. Given the public fixation on Cipriani as a celebrity sportsman with a colourful love life, together with his reputation as a troublesome sort in training, the All Blacks will be hoping against hope that he gets the nod.
These are high-risk selections – Burns, distracted by a long and drawn-out severing of links with his employers at Kingsholm, has been miles out of sorts for months; Cipriani travelled to the other side of the world to get away from the previous England management regime of Martin Johnson and has only just rediscovered his bearings at club level – but needs must. Owen Farrell of Saracens, the undisputed first-choice No 10, is unavailable for Auckland because of this weekend’s Premiership final at Twickenham, as is the in-form Stephen Myler of Northampton. With the Bath youngster George Ford unavailable because of impending surgery and Toby Flood off-limits because of his imminent move offshore, Stuart Lancaster and his back-room staff had little room for manoeuvre.
Lancaster has shown great faith in Burns, whose super-confident Test debut against the All Blacks at Twickenham some 18 months ago stands in sharp contrast to the muddle-headed displays that led to his recent demotion from the Gloucester team. The head coach indicated yesterday that the West Countryman would travel to New Zealand as marginal favourite for the starting berth at Eden Park, but he also gave Cipriani an encouraging mention in dispatches, noting that the training sessions on All Black soil would decide the issue one way or the other.
“I don’t know about the perception of Danny, but since he’s come into our camp he’s been very quiet and very diligent,” the coach said. “He is growing in presence, in terms of his leadership, and he’s done very well in getting himself up to speed with our plays and building relationships with people he doesn’t know. But in some ways he’s a little behind Freddie, who has been with us for a good while now and is standing up in training in the way I’d expect of him.” Had Cipriani not shown even a hint of the “I know better than you” approach that so endeared him to coaches in the past? “I haven’t seen any sign of that at all,” Lancaster replied.
Neither Burns nor Cipriani struggles for attacking ideas, which is just as well: England will need some “blue sky thinking” to keep pace with the free-scoring All Blacks. But defensively speaking, they are some way short of Farrell standard and have nothing whatsoever in common with the most celebrated of their playmaking predecessors, Jonny Wilkinson. When Lancaster, never one to bad-mouth his players unless they misbehave, was pressed on this subject, he admitted that his coaching colleague Andy Farrell, constructor-in-chief of the red barricades, had a good deal of work ahead of him.
“Defence is a big area to get right, particularly in New Zealand,” he said. “You can’t hide players at Test level, because people tend to find them. The time Andy spends with Freddie and Danny in getting them to understand the system will be crucial. We’ve done well in this department recently and I think we have good line speed, but if you have any uncertainty – if you have someone who’s tentative – it can unpick the whole system.”
The majority of the new faces are to be found in the front row department: the Newcastle tight-head prop Kieran Brookes will travel in the absence of Dan Cole, the Lions forward from Leicester, as will three contrasting hookers – a couple of Harlequins in Dave Ward and Joe Gray, together with the 20-year-old Luke Cowan-Dickie of Exeter. Of these, Cowan-Dickie is the player generating most excitement. An energetic spirit, not unlike Dylan Hartley in his early days, he may well make next year’s World Cup squad despite his babe-in-arms status.
Ed Slater, the Leicester captain, is another uncapped tourist, but he was a certainty for the trip after a series of tough-nut performances at the heart of the Tigers pack. Out wide, the Gloucester centre Henry Trinder and the Worcester full-back Chris Pennell have broken into the elite group. Pennell’s selection will be celebrated far beyond the West Midlands, for his performances in relegation-haunted adversity over the Premiership campaign were magnificent.
England will call in a couple of players from the third-string squad preparing for this weekend’s end-of-season meeting with the Barbarians – a pointless fixture if ever there was one, unless cash generation is the only thing that matters in this professional age. Much depends on the injury situation surrounding the Bath back Anthony Watson, who pulled a hamstring during the Amlin Challenge Cup final defeat by Northampton last Friday, and the Saracens loose-head prop Mako Vunipola, who suffered a knee injury on Heineken Cup final duty the following day and left the Millennium Stadium on crutches.
If Vunipola fails to recover, there will probably be an opening for the Bath front-rower Nathan Catt, whose promise as an age-group international has yet to be fulfilled. Catt is renowned as a “yeti” player – often talked about, seldom seen – but this could be his big chance.