Dark horses charging into Stuart Lancaster's World Cup reckoning

Stuart Lancaster's long-term plans have been muddled by five players who are making strong late runs that demand invites to England’s global gathering

They call it the Eddie Jones Doctrine, after the ingenious Australian coach who guided an undercooked Wallaby side to the World Cup final in 2003 and helped a far more experienced band of Springboks land the title four years later.

During that time, Jones reached the conclusion that any nation with serious designs on the Webb Ellis Cup should arrive at the tournament with between 600 and 700 caps in their starting team. If the  doctrine holds, England’s finest are more likely to watch this year’s showpiece decider than play in it.

Stuart Lancaster’s side will be short on Test know-how in comparison to some of their principal rivals – the New Zealanders, the South Africans, the Welsh.

 

In part, this is because he took the bold decision to build a side from scratch following the World Cup pratfall in All Black country in 2011. In addition, his best efforts have been undermined by long-term injuries to the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes, and by the fading from view of Chris Ashton and Toby Flood.

And just to put the tin hat on it, a whole new batch of World Cup contenders have waited until the 11th hour to stake a claim, just when the head coach was close to deciding on his 31-man party.

At this stage in the title-winning year of 2003, Clive Woodward was almost there on the selection front: only the full-back Josh Lewsey and the prop Trevor Woodman were making late runs for inclusion. Lancaster’s thought process has been disrupted to a far greater extent, by the form of five players in particular.

Jonathan Joseph

Outside centre

8 caps, 6 starts

The most eye-catching performer over the first two rounds of Six Nations activity would have been nowhere near the starting line-up had Tuilagi been passed fit for once or Billy Twelvetrees been in control of his error count. Now that Joseph is in the side and having the time of his life, to the ringing accompaniment of 1,000 “we told you so” comments from a Bath coaching team bewildered by his absence from the squad before Christmas, there seems no immediate prospect of him playing his way back out of it.

Which rather complicates matters for an England hierarchy who had pretty much committed themselves to playing a route-one basher in the No 13 channel – hence their publicly stated yearning for Tuilagi to stop troubling the physios and start troubling opposition defences instead.

Lancaster has been working on the basis of taking four centres to the World Cup, at least one of them sufficiently fast and versatile to play on the wing. Joseph, who ticks the multitasking box much more readily than Tuilagi, already looks certain to  survive the cut and, as it is barely possible to imagine either the human bowling ball from Leicester or the defensive kingpin Brad Barritt being dumped as excess baggage, it seems the final place will be contested by Twelvetrees, Luther Burrell and Kyle Eastmond, none of whom has a fat lot in common.

England may have found a genuine footballing outside centre, but they have also inherited a problem. And that’s without the newcomer Sam Burgess landing in union fully formed and playing like Jamie Roberts, Conrad Smith and the Archangel Gabriel combined, as some people appeared to expect.

Danny Cipriani

Outside-half

10 caps, 4 starts

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Cipriani made a high-class cameo against Italy (AFP/Getty)

As things stand, England will pick two specialist outside-halves for the global gathering – and one of them will be George Ford, the current custodian of the No 10 shirt. Until very recently, it was as plain as the nose on Cyrano de Bergerac’s face that Owen Farrell would be the other, and the likelihood must be that the injured midfielder’s supreme goal-kicking, iron defence and fire-and-ice attitude will earn him a place.

But what if Cipriani builds on his high-class cameo against Italy and rips up Ireland in Dublin or the French at Twickenham over the coming weeks? In a celebrity-driven age, it would take a very brave coach indeed to head for the World Cup without him.

There is a theory, most eloquently voiced by the former England outside-half Paul Grayson (who knows a thing or two about the game), that England’s cause would be better served by two similarly equipped playmakers than a pair of polar opposites, on the basis that if the senior man fails to survive the opening 20 seconds against Wales or Australia, he does not take the strategy with him as he leaves the field on a stretcher. Patently, Ford and Cipriani are the men with the attacking vision thing. There again, Farrell is one of the “conscience players” in the red-rose squad. Lancaster could pick him as a centre, of course, but the squeeze in that department is already asphyxiating.

Kieran Brookes

Prop

8 caps, 0 starts

Where does the new prop stand in the great red-rose scheme of things? At 6ft 2in and the best part of 20st, he can stand anywhere he likes. Lancaster keeps giving the Tyneside-based Midlander mentions in dispatches and you can see why: every time he is given a run off the bench, he adds oomph and edge to the England mix. In addition – and this is important – he can operate on both sides of the scrum. In terms of World Cup selection, such positional flexibility is a gift from the gods.

England have three Lions Test props on their books – Alex Corbisiero, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole – plus the Harlequins loose head Joe Marler, whose upturn in performance level since the introduction of the current scrum protocols in 2013 has been off the graph, and the Bath tight-head specialist David Wilson, whose excellent displays last year allowed the national team to function despite Cole’s long-term neck injury. As England cannot pick all six contenders without leaving themselves chronically short elsewhere, and assuming Brookes continues to impress, one of that gnarled, battle-hardened quintet will miss out.

George Kruis

Lock

6 caps, 2 starts

The Saracens second-rower, 25 tomorrow, is a Brookes-like invader who has already taken up occupation by forging a forceful alliance with Dave Attwood of Bath.

Just as the orthopaedic traumas of Tuilagi and Barritt left the way open for Joseph, the late developer from Surrey would not be where he is today if Lawes, Joe Launchbury and Geoff Parling were still going concerns. But one man’s misery is always another man’s meal ticket – and Kruis is gorging himself silly on helping after helping.

Only this week, Lancaster could be heard lauding him for his fitness and mobility, his energy, his leadership in defence, his communication skills. “We listen to the audio during a game and it’s George’s voice that we hear above all others when the contest is actually in progress,” the coach said.

Which begs an obvious question regarding World Cup selection. If Kruis is in – and few will bet against him if he continues in this vein – who will be out? Lawes and Launchbury being key components in the Lancaster plan, could a Lions Test line-out maestro as productive as Parling end up feeling the squeeze?

James Haskell 

Flanker

55 caps, 38 starts

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James Haskell impressed in the Six Nations opener against Wales (Getty)

The Wasps captain is in a different category to his fellow upsetters of the apple cart – he is a positive greybeard by comparison, having made three times as many international starts as the other four combined – but his assault on the accepted order of things is every bit as furious.

Before Christmas, when the cream of southern hemisphere rugby was heading north for the four-match series at Twickenham, the Northampton forward Tom Wood was miles out of reach of those who coveted the No 6 shirt. Even when Wood was demoted for the Samoa fixture following unusually quiet games against the All Blacks and the Springboks, there was little in Haskell’s performance to suggest any serious threat to the status quo.

But Wood injured himself shortly before the Six Nations opener in Wales, and this time Haskell was in no mood to let the opportunity slip. The raw energy of his display at the Millennium Stadium, reproduced to a large extent last weekend when the Italians lost heavily in London, has pushed him to the head of the blind-side queue, even if the England line-out is paying a price for his renaissance.

Both contenders will make the final 31-man party for the big event, but the scrap for seniority will be compelling.

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