Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, always intended to take the Hollywood blockbuster approach to World Cup training squad selection but even in rugby’s version of a cast of thousands, some players were deemed surplus to requirements.
Two of the top-performing forwards in the country, the Exeter blind-side flanker Dave Ewers and the Saracens hooker Jamie George, will spend the next few days wondering how the hell they missed the cut when just about everyone else in existence was chosen.
One absentee in the 50-strong party cannot have been surprised: Steffon Armitage. The occasionally troublesome but undeniably effective back-rower has caused the red-rose hierarchy no end of heartache, for the simple reason that he plays on the wrong side of the water in Toulon, on the French Riviera, and therefore falls outside Twickenham’s strict policy of “England places for England-based candidates”.
At one point yesterday, Lancaster pretty much admitted that the national team would be stronger if the collective resolve to exclude foreign exiles was just a little weaker.
“We could have taken a short-term view, one that might have given us, as individuals in the coaching set-up, a better chance of success this autumn,” he said. “But all the various bodies surrounding the sport in this country have been unanimous in recognising the importance of the policy, which I think is 100 per cent appropriate.
“This has been one of the rare occasions when the full debate has been had and I get the fact that there will be a spread of opinion. But I was the one who, in January 2012, stood up in front of the players in a clubhouse in Leeds and asked them if they were on board with us in what we were trying to do in rebuilding the England team.
“I haven’t consulted the players in this – frankly, it’s not a decision for them – but I know it would affect team dynamics in what is the ultimate team game if we suddenly decided to do things differently. The people with us now have made a huge commitment in dedicating themselves to the shirt, and that would be eroded if we changed now.”
While Lancaster was insisting he had “never wavered” and “never changed his position” on the Armitage question, some close followers of the England set-up felt he had sent out mixed messages over the last 18 months – not least when Bath tried to bring the player from the Côte d’Azur to the West Country by negotiating a loan deal with the three-time European champions.
Whatever the coach may think in his quietest moments, he is now eager to put the thing to bed. “We need to stop suggesting that there’s only one person who can win turnover ball at the tackle area,” he said, tartly. “The breakdown is a collective effort. I think we have some quality back-row players in this squad, that we have genuine strength in depth.”
That strength will diminish if Ben Morgan, the Gloucester No 8, fails to recover from a gruesome leg injury in time to stake a claim for a place in the final, 31-man squad, the make-up of which will become clear as Lancaster makes cuts to the training party at various staging posts between now and the second of three warm-up matches, against France in Paris on 22 August.
The coach believes Morgan will be fit for the forthcoming summer camp in Colorado, but if that faith proves to be misplaced, England will find themselves punching below their weight in one of their “spine” positions.
As expected, a handful of uncapped players were called up: two rich talents from Exeter in the goal-kicking playmaker Henry Slade and the hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, the Wasps centre Elliot Daly, the young Saracens forward Maro Itoje, the Northampton flanker Calum Clark and, inevitably, Sam Burgess of Bath, who is still in his first season as a union convert from rugby league and continues to provoke feverish discussions about his optimum position. Bath consider him a back-rower; England fancy him as a ball-carrying midfielder. We are about to discover if he is a No 6 or a No 12 – or, indeed, if his number is up.
There were no left-field picks, with the exception of the Saracens wing David Strettle, whose free-scoring Premiership form has restored him to Lancaster’s affections after a rough tour of Argentina in 2013. It goes without saying that Manu Tuilagi, who is banned from Test duty until next year after last week’s conviction on charges of assault and criminal damage, has travelled in the opposite direction.
“There are no winners in this: Manu will be missed in and around the squad,” the coach said. “But England players are role models for huge numbers of people, young and old. We’ve made the right decision.”
England’s Bath fly-half George Ford was named Aviva Premiership Player of the Season for 2014-15 after an outstanding season.
England training squad
Forwards: D Attwood (Bath), K Brookes (Newcastle), C Clark (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), A Corbisiero (Northampton), L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), N Easter (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), J Haskell (Wasps), M Itoje (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Kruis (Saracens), M Kvesic (Gloucester), J Marler (Harlequins), B Morgan (Gloucester), M Mullan (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), C Robshaw (Harlequins), E Slater (Leicester), M Vunipola (Saracens), B Vunipola (Saracens), R Webber (Bath), D Wilson (Bath), T Wood (Northampton), T Youngs (Leicester).
Backs: C Ashton (Saracens), B Barritt (Saracens), M Brown (Harlequins), L Burrell (Northampton), S Burgess (Bath), D Care (Harlequins), D Cipriani (Sale), E Daly (Wasps), L Dickson (Northampton), K Eastmond (Bath), O Farrell (Saracens), G Ford (Bath), A Goode (Saracens), J Joseph (Bath), J May (Gloucester), S Myler (Northampton), J Nowell (Exeter), H Slade (Exeter), D Strettle (Saracens), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), A Watson (Bath), R Wigglesworth (Saracens), M Yarde (Harlequins), B Youngs (Leicester).
Final 31-man World Cup squad must be announced by 31 AugustReuse content