Stuart Lancaster put England’s forthcoming trip to All Black country in its proper perspective today when he said, just a little quietly: “We’ve won only two Test matches in New Zealand in our history. To take this series, we’ll have to win two more in the space of a week.”
The red-rose coach then named 20 players in what amounted to an advance guard – a training squad before the 26 May announcement of the final squads for the game against the Barbarians at Twickenham on 1 June and the Kiwi tour later that month.
As many of the training squad are uncapped, the vast majority of them will be a complete mystery to the formidable opponents lying in wait on the far side of the world.
Of course, the New Zealanders will have heard of Danny Cipriani, recalled to national duty for the first time in six years after a season in which his performances for Sale have been almost as striking as the absence of news about his love life.
Cipriani remains an outsider for the three-Test, four-match programme in the land of the silver fern next month – he has Owen Farrell of Saracens, George Ford of Bath, Stephen Myler of Northampton and, on balance, Freddie Burns of nowhere in particular ahead of him in the pecking order – but he is certain to feature against the Barbarians at Twickenham a fortnight on Sunday. A first step on the road to salvation? We shall see.
Cipriani’s selection had been well flagged, as had the call-up for the eye-catching young Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, who has a very good chance of making the final cut for the New Zealand-bound party.
The unexpected picks were the Gloucester scrum-half Dan Robson, one of precious few Kingsholmites to emerge from a desperate season with reputation enhanced, and… um… a New Zealander, in the shape of the 29-year-old lock Michael Paterson.
One of Cipriani’s club-mates up there on English union’s north-west frontier, Paterson, from Christchurch, has been one of the most effective performers of the Premiership campaign, topping the line-out statistics and generally playing out of his socks. A good friend of the All Black No 8 Kieran Read, who is now in the top one when it comes to the “best player in the world” debate, he has been on the red-rose radar for a while but did not press his claim until his move from Cardiff Blues at the end of last season.
It stretches credulity to suggest at this stage that Paterson will return to his homeland next month as part of the England tour squad: with Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Dave Attwood, Geoff Parling and Ed Slater among his rivals, he can expect little more than a run against the Baa-Baas. But if second-row injuries kick in – Launchbury, Lawes and Slater all have big rugby ahead of them this weekend, while Attwood is building towards a European final a week today – he could be required as emergency cover.
Thanks to a fixture schedule that might have been used as a plot line in a Marx Brothers movie had it been marginally less ridiculous, Lancaster was forced to select from those Premiership clubs who have shut up shop for the season. Or to put it another way, players from Saracens, Northampton, Leicester, Harlequins, Bath and Wasps – precisely 50 per cent of the top flight – were effectively off-limits.
The coach will not be able to make a final call on the shape of his squad for New Zealand for another 10 days, and even then he will be a hostage to fortune as he waits for the injury bulletin from the Premiership final on 31 May.
There was, however, some encouraging news on the orthopaedic front yesterday: Dylan Hartley, a crucial figure at hooker, is recovering rapidly from his shoulder problems and is expected to tour, while the inside-centre Billy Twelvetrees is still under consideration, despite suffering from ankle trouble. “We’ll give Billy the best possible chance to play a part,” Lancaster said. “We certainly haven’t ruled him out.”
Predictably yesterday, there was much interest in Cipriani’s future at representative level, but Lancaster was in no mood to be drawn, stating simply that the celebrity midfielder’s club form warranted this fresh opportunity.
He was far happier talking about the choice of Chris Pennell, the Worcester full-back, whose efforts in adversity over the last nine months have been little short of heroic. “It’s a great success story for him personally,” the coach said. “Chances come to different to different people at different times and this is a fitting reward.”
Lancaster is likely to do a good deal of talking between now and departure from Heathrow, not least because England’s last two ventures to New Zealand, in 2008 and 2011, were mired in scandal. Six years ago, there was the grotesque spectacle of the tourists refusing to help the Auckland police with their inquiries into an alleged sexual assault – this current England management have been assured that the case is now closed – while the subsequent World Cup campaign featured the full gamut of behavioural delights, from dwarf-throwing to ferry-jumping.
“We let ourselves down in previous visits,” the coach acknowledged. “We want to make sure that this time we are good ambassadors – that we leave New Zealand with the respect of our hosts.”
England training squad: K Brookes (Newcastle Falcons), F Burns (Gloucester
Rugby), D Cipriani (Sale Sharks), L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs), D Ewers
(Exeter Chiefs), S Hill (Exeter Chiefs), T Johnson (Exeter Chiefs), M Kvesic
(Gloucester Rugby), J May (Gloucester Rugby), B Morgan (Gloucester Rugby), M
Paterson (Sale Sharks), C Pennell (Worcester Warriors), D Robson (Gloucester
Rugby), C Sharples (Gloucester Rugby), H Slade (Exeter Chiefs), T Taylor (Sale
Sharks), H Thomas (Sale Sharks), H Trinder (Gloucester Rugby), B Twelvetrees
(Gloucester Rugby), M Yarde (London Irish).