Lancaster to give young pretenders a real blooding
Wade, Youngs and Lowe thrown in at deep end in 42-man England squad for tour of South Africa
Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, did not hesitate for a second: a three-Test series in South Africa is, he acknowledged, the toughest proposition – indeed, the nearest thing to hell on earth – that rugby has to offer. Just the place, then, for 13 uncapped tourists, some of whom have yet to play a full club season in the Premiership. Better to have an early taste of the diabolical, it seems, than be left lingering in a fool's paradise.
The Wasps wing Christian Wade, the London Irish centre Jonathan Joseph, the Harlequins midfielder George Lowe, the Leicester hooker Tom Youngs – these newcomers and others will be hard pushed to win their first caps on the forthcoming tour of Springbok country, which begins in Durban early next month. Instead, they can look forward to some midweek kickings in such picturesque corners of the highveld as Kimberley and Potchefstroom.
Will it do them any good? Stuart Lancaster, preparing for his first tour as head coach of the national side, certainly thinks so. "This trip," he said yesterday, "gives us the opportunity to do several things: to build the team toughness that will see us through future challenges; to get used to managing life in the goldfish bowl; and, most of all, to gauge the depth of our playing strength by working with these people over a period of time. This is absolutely invaluable. You can watch all the matches you like, but nothing beats coaching players on the training field."
When England meet the Boks at King's Park on 9 June, the starting line-up is likely to feature at least 13 of the players who took the field for the comprehensive Six Nations victory over Ireland in March – always assuming, of course, that Lancaster is spared a serious injury fallout over the last two weekends of club activity. (No fewer than 31 of the 42 tourists have been drawn from Harlequins, Leicester, Saracens and Northampton, the Premiership semi-finalists.) "Those who played against Ireland have a lot of credit in the bank, and rightly so," the coach explained.
But as a means of introducing the bright young things to the age-old realities of the international environment, this tour is pretty much perfect. "By taking 42 players, we have enough bodies to ensure there will be no interference with preparation for the Test series, but not so many as to deny people a chance of getting out there on the field. We've spent a lot of time and effort developing the players in our elite squad and this is an opportunity to build on that."
If the super-fast-tracking of Youngs, who has yet to start a Premiership game at hooker, is the most obvious gamble, it also makes a degree of sense – not that a more experienced, if equally fresh-faced, contender like Jamie George of Saracens would necessarily agree. "Tom has a lot of work to do on his set-piece play and he knows it," Rowntree said of the former centre, whose brother Ben is a marginal favourite to start the first Test at scrum-half. "But in terms of his dynamism around the field, he's exceptional. We're taking him for development reasons and we're looking forward to seeing how he goes."
As expected, the troubled Harlequins half-back Danny Care has been given a chance to rebuild his bridges with Lancaster by putting a catalogue of alcohol-fuelled excesses behind him and concentrating on the day job. "Danny is treading a very thin line," said the coach, acutely aware that the Yorkshireman is still under investigation for an alleged sexual assault. "But I met with him and I'm reassured. I'm with Conor O'Shea [the Quins rugby director] on this one. We think it's the right decision to take him."
Flanker James Haskell's return to the squad, despite his current Super 15 commitments in New Zealand, was also well flagged. Asked if the out-spoken World Cup forward would be properly "on-message" after his offshore sojourn, Lancaster was unusually sharp in his reply. "I'm sure he'll be on-message," he said. "Otherwise, he'll be off-tour." The coach added that it would be "very difficult" for Haskell to mount a challenge for a starting place in Durban, an indication that Phil Dowson of Northampton is ahead of the field in the race to fill the back-row gap left by the injured Tom Croft.
Among those unlucky to miss out is the Gloucester wing, Jonny May, beaten to a place by the free-scoring Wade.
England tour Squad
Forwards: M Botha (Saracens, age 30, 6 caps), D Cole (Leicester, 25, 28), A Corbisiero (London Irish, 23, 15), P Doran Jones (27, 3), P Dowson (both Northampton, 31, 5), C Fearns (Bath, 23, 0), J Gray (Harlequins, 23, 0), D Hartley (Northampton, 26, 39), J Haskell (Otago, 27, 42), T Johnson (Exeter, 29, 0), G Kitchener (Leicester, 22, 0), J Launchbury (Wasps, 21, 0), J Marler (Harlequins, 21, 0), L Mears (Bath, 33, 39), B Morgan (Scarlets, 23, 5), M Mullan (Worcester, 25, 1), T Palmer (Stade Français, 33, 37), G Parling (Leicester, 28, 5), C Robshaw (capt, 25 ,6), G Robson (both Harlequins, 26, 0), M Stevens (Saracens, 29, 44), T Waldrom (29, 0), T Youngs (both Leicester, 25, 0)
Backs: A Allen (Leicester, 25, 2), C Ashton (Northampton, 25, 23), B Barritt (Saracens, 25, 5), M Brown (26, 6), D Care (both Harlequins, 25, 32), L Dickson (Northampton, 27, 5), O Farrell (Saracens, 20, 5), T Flood (Leicester, 26, 47), B Foden (Northampton, 26, 27), A Goode (24, 0), C Hodgson (both Saracens, 31, 38), J Joseph (London Irish, 20, 0), G Lowe (22, 0), U Monye (both Harlequins, 29, 13), D Strettle (Saracens, 28, 11), M Tuilagi (Leicester, 20, 10), J Turner-Hall (Harlequins, 24, 2), C Wade (Wasps, 20, 0), B Youngs (Leicester, 22, 22)
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