Morgan's recall for Scarlets irks England
No 8 forced to return to club rather than rest with country while Narraway chooses move to France
Stuart Lancaster did not admit it in so many words, but he has had his fill of Wales and its rugby population for a while. No sooner had England's caretaker coach finished licking his wounds after last weekend's narrow defeat at the hands of the World Cup semi-finalists than he found his best-laid plans further undermined by the Llanelli-based Scarlets, who pulled rank in respect of the highly rated No 8 Ben Morgan.
Morgan left the England camp yesterday, to link up with the Scarlets for tomorrow's RaboDirect Pro12 game against Connacht. The sooner the Bristol-born No 8 finds his way back across the Severn, the easier life will be.
That may happen quickly. Morgan, who was fast-tracked into the England squad at the start of the Six Nations, has been linked with a move to Gloucester at the end of the season – a theory that gained credence yesterday when the current Kingsholm No 8 and captain, Luke Narraway, announced that he will play for Perpignan next term. Narraway, the best footballing back-rower in the country by a considerable distance, made the decision for two reasons: firstly, because his chances of resuming what was once a promising international career have become increasingly remote and secondly because he had been told things were moving in a "new direction" at club level. Quite possibly in the direction of Morgan.
Lancaster, preparing for a difficult trip to France on Sunday week, had wanted to wrap his starting line-up from the Wales game in cotton wool. Fourteen of them will indeed ease their way through a light training session at Loughborough University today. The exception is Morgan.
"Yes, we tried to talk Scarlets into letting Ben stay with us, but ultimately it was their call and they told us they required him for their game this week," Lancaster said. "Because Ben plays his club rugby in Wales he's not covered by the Elite Player Agreement, like those playing in the Premiership. You can have the negotiation when these things arise, but you're not in a very strong position."
By agreeing a move to the rugby badlands of Catalonia, where the locals are even more boisterous than those who congregate in the Kingsholm Shed, Narraway, who has seven caps, has effectively closed himself off from Test rugby. It is current Twickenham policy not to pick from abroad, unless exceptional circumstances arise. While much of the 28-year-old's recent rugby has been exceptional, mere attacking brilliance does not meet the governing body's criteria. When he crosses the Channel, he will leave his red-rose ambitions at passport control.
"I think the selection policy is here to stay – certainly, I've heard nothing to the contrary," Lancaster said. "I spoke to Luke on Monday, when he contacted me to inform me of his intentions. We spoke about how difficult it would be for him to press his claims for an England place and he's fully aware of the situation. It's a player choice and I understand that this is a great opportunity for him. I also know that there are plenty of other people who want to play in the back row for England."
In all, 18 of Lancaster's 32-man squad were released from camp yesterday. Joining Morgan on the road out of Loughborough was the fly-half Charlie Hodgson, who missed the Wales game with a finger injury and must now prove his fitness with Saracens, who meet Northampton at Vicarage Road on Sunday. Even if he plays a blinder, it is difficult to see him returning to the starting line-up in Paris. As the coach pointed out, the midfield axis of Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi punched their weight against Wales.
Not that Farrell was in the best of health yesterday. Together with the wing Chris Ashton, he was struggling with a bug. At the same time, there were concerns over the lock Courtney Lawes, who was packed off to hospital for a scan on a shin injury. Two fringe players, the Harlequins centre Jordan Turner-Hall and the Northampton flanker Calum Clark, were under treatment for ankle and shoulder problems respectively.
Wisely, Lancaster resisted any temptation he might have felt to moan about the refereeing of Steve Walsh in the closing seconds of last weekend's game, although he did refer to the Australian official's failure to give England one last penalty opportunity – a major mistake – by saying: "We were playing an advantage, so it's clearly something on which he will have to reflect."
The coach was more interested in the scrummaging and discipline issues that cost England their unbeaten record in this season's championship.
"We're making progress," he said, "but we lost some composure under pressure against Wales and we can't afford to do that again."
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