Josh Lewsey, a World Cup winner five years ago and the man whose try propelled his country into a second successive final in October, was last night dumped from the England party preparing for the first of this season's internationals, against the Pacific Islands at Twickenham on Saturday week. Olly Barkley, the goal-kicking midfielder from Gloucester, disappeared in the same puff of smoke as Martin Johnson cut eight players from the squad preparing at the team base in Surrey.
Lewsey started the current campaign as a strong candidate to fill the problem position of full-back, and although his club form for Wasps has been considerably less than spectacular – his vulnerability under the high ball led to an embarrassingly public banishment to the left wing during a Premiership match at Northampton – this decision was unexpected. England are so short of experienced outside backs there was a strong argument to retain Lewsey's services in the hope of a positive response to the pressures of the Test environment.
Barkley's temporary demise was less of a surprise as he has yet to settle into his new surroundings at Kingsholm following a summer move from Bath that bewildered many of those who had followed his career from the moment Clive Woodward picked him as a teenager, sight unseen, for the England tour of North America in 2001. Since that trip, successive national coaches have messed the player around – not least last summer, when he travelled to New Zealand as a potential answer to the long-running issue at inside centre but spent barely 40 minutes in the role. However, he cannot claim to be hard done by and needs a couple of convincing performances if he is to challenge for a place in the autumn series.
Among the other six players sent back to their clubs for this weekend's final round of EDF Energy Cup matches were two Leicester players, Dan Hipkiss, the centre, and Jordan Crane, the uncapped No 8. Both might have expected to stay in the frame a little longer but the immediate selection thinking has left them behind. The release of a third Leicester player, the hooker George Chuter, means Lee Mears of Bath, the incumbent, and the brilliant uncapped Northampton front-rower Dylan Hartley will be involved against the tourists from the South Seas. Peter Richards of London Irish has also been sent away, leaving Danny Care and Harry Ellis to fight over the starting position at scrum-half. The centre Shane Geraghty and the prop Tim Payne were always expected to be surplus to requirements.
With lingering injury concerns over Mathew Tait, the jack-of-all-trades back from Sale, and Luke Narraway, the Gloucester No 8 who performed energetically in difficult circumstances against the All Blacks last June, two players have been retained as cover: Delon Armitage of London Irish and Nick Easter of Harlequins. As there will be no final decision on Tait or Narraway until Monday, Armitage and Easter will be expected to complete this week's training chores.
So Johnson and his back-roomers have narrowed their choices in most areas. If there is still a wide-open field for any of the positions, it is at lock and loose forward where nine players are under consideration. Elsewhere, there are straight fights between Toby Flood and Danny Cipriani at outside-half, and between Matt Stevens and Phil Vickery at tight-head prop. Jamie Noon of Newcastle appears to have nailed the outside centre role, although Tait could yet challenge there.
One player ditched from the England squad that contested last season's Six Nations Championship, Lesley Vainikolo, has been released on bail by police after an incident in Bath at the weekend. The Gloucester wing was arrested after a man was taken to hospital with injuries at first feared to be critical, but which later proved not to be serious. The player has not been charged.
England's elite: Squad for Pacific Islands
Outside backs: N Abendanon (Bath), U Monye (Harlequins), P Sackey (Wasps), M Tait (Sale).
Midfielders: D Cipriani (Wasps), T Flood (Leicester), R Flutey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle).
Scrum-halfs: D Care (Harlequins), H Ellis (Leicester).
Props: A Sheridan (Sale), M Stevens (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps).
Hookers: D Hartley (Northampton), L Mears (Bath).
Locks: S Borthwick (Bath), N Kennedy (London Irish), T Palmer (Wasps), S Shaw (Wasps).
Loose forwards: T Croft (Leicester), J Haskell (Wasps), M Lipman (Bath), L Narraway (Gloucester), T Rees (Wasps).
N Easter (Harlequins) and D Armitage (London Irish) as cover for injured Narraway and Tait.Reuse content