England have recorded some handsome victories in World Cup warm-up matches down the years, winning in such inhospitable places as Cardiff and Dublin and putting untold squillions of points past the Premiership All-Stars, although the poor souls in that godforsaken team of 1999 were neither stars nor, in some cases at least, Premiership players. Things have moved on since then, happily, as events at Twickenham tonight will surely demonstrate.
This meeting with France, who have won more preparatory games against the English than they have lost, will be sufficiently serious to justify the ticket prices, despite the exploratory line-ups chosen to start the contest. The vast majority of the visitors will be involved when the serious business begins next month – Philippe Saint-André, the head coach of Les Bleus, has been working with the same 36 players throughout the summer and will ditch only five of them when he comes to choose his tournament squad – while there are enough red-rose places up for grabs to ensure a full-on effort from virtually everyone in a white shirt.
Among those most obviously implicated in the latter category are the centres Sam Burgess and Henry Slade, the tight-head prop Kieran Brookes, the lock George Kruis and the No 8 Ben Morgan, although Morgan is in a slightly different category, given that his involvement at the World Cup depends on him providing evidence of a full recovery from a badly broken leg rather than proving himself a more potent option than his principal rival, Nick Easter.
While Burgess will inevitably command the lion’s share of attention on his international union debut – the high-profile signing from rugby league has done precious little to justify his position at this elevated level of the 15-man code, so it will come as a blessed relief to get to the truth of him one way or the other – another newcomer is quietly planning to make a noise loud enough to upset the apple cart in the loose-forward department. His name? Calum Clark. His aim? To deliver an 80-minute performance of such quality that no sane coach could possibly consider him surplus to requirements for the campaign ahead.
As few people take it upon themselves to question Stuart Lancaster’s grip on reality, and as the red-rose head coach has included Clark in his training squads whenever humanly possible (which has not always been the case, thanks to the Northampton forward’s disciplinary record), it is not beyond the realms that there could be a late change in the back-row pecking order. It remains a long shot – Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and today’s captain, Tom Wood, are the molten favourites to make the cut – but until the fat lady exercises her vocal cords…
“There are a lot of established players in the back row,” Clark said yesterday. “I understand and appreciate that. In my position, all I can ask for is an opportunity, and that’s what I have in this game. It’s not easy to describe how I feel about winning my first cap, but when I think about everything that’s gone into getting here, it means so much.”
He would have been forgiven for thinking it might never happen: back in rugby’s Jurassic age, when injury replacements were frowned upon as namby-pamby and tactical substitutions were regarded as an impermissible abomination, many players spent years in and around their international squads without ever taking the field. In the modern era, Clark’s three-and-a-half year red-rose sojourn, fruitless until now, has seemed almost harrowing.
“I guess last summer was a low point,” he said. “I wasn’t really involved, and when I saw all my Northampton mates, alongside whom I’d just won the Premiership title, heading off on tour to New Zealand while I was going on my hols, it hurt a lot. I didn’t watch those games against the All Blacks – I was on the other side of the world with my backpack – but I made a conscious decision then that I wanted more from my rugby – that I wanted to be a part of the England squad at this point in the World Cup build-up.”
He has kept the promise he made to himself, largely by concentrating on developing his skills as an open-side flanker and partly by cleaning up his act. The eight-month ban he received in 2012 for breaking the arm of the Leicester hooker Rob Hawkins was thoroughly well deserved, and he has not been allowed to forget the error of his ways. His triumph, if that is what it turns out to be, has been to retain the aggressive edge that lies at the heart of his game while learning how to play within the confines of acceptability.
“That’s in the past,” he said when asked about the Hawkins incident and its after-effects. “If people want to look at it, they can. I just hope they’ll also see the improvements I’ve made in that area over the last couple of years.”
Even though the French captain, Thierry Dusautoir, whose World Cup performances in 2007 and 2011 were on the impressive side of majestic, is injured, Clark and his great friend Wood, together with Morgan, are likely to have their work cut out. Yannick Nyanga, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Louis Picamoles have all travelled, and every one of them can play a bit.
Which is exactly what England need: opponents who pose a genuine threat to those players fighting for the right to take their place among the Chosen Ones. If, as Lancaster indicated this week, Burgess and Slade are effectively chasing one position, it will be easier to make a comparison if a centre as good as Gaël Fickou gets among them. If another of the debutant England forwards, the replacement hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, is really as gifted as he appears, now is the time to show it against visiting front-rowers as accomplished as Guilhem Guirado (quite possibly the best No 2 in Europe) and Dimitri Szarzewski.
Lancaster insists his mind is still open on a range of selection issues, although the main body of the World Cup squad was identified long ago. Some of the “fringe” contenders will not feature in the return match in Paris a week today, so this is their last chance, as well as their first one. That alone guarantees compelling viewing. As compelling, in its own way, as the try-laden Six Nations finale last March.