The cull was less wide-ranging than expected – seven players out of 46, rather than the eight or nine anticipated at this advanced stage of proceedings – but it was no less painful for those on the brutal end of it. Three wings, including the Saracens box-office attraction Chris Ashton, saw their World Cup ambitions dashed yesterday, as did the Bath centre Kyle Eastmond, who lost out to his clubmate Sam Burgess.
Eastmond will be wondering what the hell and why. His performances in the No 12 shirt during the last domestic campaign were so far in advance of the newcomer from rugby league that Burgess ended up operating on the blind-side flank – patently the best position for a powerful, ruthlessly combative individual who, nevertheless, has no kicking game, rarely passes the ball more than a few feet and is unlikely to worry opposition midfielders with his express pace. Still, the die is cast. Eastmond now knows that form is not only temporary, but occasionally irrelevant.
Another Bath back, the Fijian-born wing Semesa Rokoduguni, was also the recipient of bad news, as was the Harlequins wide man Marland Yarde, who had once looked a hot tip for the England starting line-up in next month’s global tournament. The remaining unfortunates – Lee Dickson, the Northampton scrum-half; Matt Mullan, the Wasps prop; Matt Kvesic, the Gloucester flanker – had always been considered fringe candidates and it was no great surprise when they were shown the exit.
Not for the first time in his stewardship of red-rose affairs, the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, managed to hide some of his ace cards below the table. Some expected Rokoduguni to survive; others were convinced that the Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees would go the way of Eastmond; still more believed George Kruis, the young Saracens lock, would disappear from view. None of those expectations was met.
Thirty-nine players are now disputing 31 places, and Lancaster will not cut his party further until the back end of the month, by which time England will have played two warm-up games against France. It may be that one or more of those omitted yesterday will be recalled, for as the coach said: “The door is not closed by any means. They are only an injury away.”
Leaving aside the decisive call at wing – we now know that Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and Jonny May are the final choices – a second important matter was clarified at scrum-half, with Danny Care of Harlequins fully restored to the red-rose mix. He was long regarded as one of Lancaster’s go-to players, but the coach moved in the opposite direction last season by jettisoning the Yorkshireman after the autumn defeats by the All Blacks and the Springboks. Care was so far out of form that it was tempting to wonder if his best rugby might be behind him, but he always had raw pace to fall back on – the kind of pace that Dickson, for all his honest-to-goodness virtues, cannot match.
Yet some really intense conflicts are still raging – among the front-rowers, where Lancaster is picking from strength, and, as ever, the midfielders, where he is doing the opposite. The coach was reluctant to give Mullan his cards: by all accounts, the loose-head specialist had yielded nothing to his more celebrated rivals – Alex Corbisiero, Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola – during last month’s high-altitude training camp in Colorado. Yet not even Corbisiero, such an influential figure for the British & Irish Lions in their series victory over Australia in 2013, can be wholly sure of surviving the last of the squad cuts in a little over three weeks’ time.
For different reasons, something similar can be said for Twelvetrees, Burgess, Henry Slade and Luther Burrell among the centre contingent. All four will feature at some point during the home-and-away games with France; all four know they must produce an eye-catching performance – maybe two – if they are to stand an earthly of joining Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph in the chosen few.
There may also be some fun and games in the back row. Calum Clark, the uncapped Northampton flanker, is still in there fighting, as is the veteran Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter.
Chris Ashton (wing), Lee Dickson (scrum-half), Kyle Eastmond (centre), Matt Kvesic (flanker), Matt Mullan (prop), Semesa Rokoduguni (wing) and Marland Yarde (wing)
Still in the running...
Full-backs: Mike Brown, Alex Goode
Wings: Jonny May, Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson
Centres: Brad Barritt, Sam Burgess, Luther Burrell, Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade, Billy Twelvetrees
Outside-halves: Danny Cipriani, Owen Farrell, George Ford
Scrum-halves: Danny Care, Richard Wigglesworth, Ben Youngs
Loose-head props: Alex Corbisiero, Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola
Hookers: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jamie George, Rob Webber, Tom Youngs
Tight-head props: Kieran Brookes, Dan Cole, David Wilson
Locks: Dave Attwood, George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling
Flankers: Calum Clark, James Haskell, Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood
No 8s: Nick Easter, Ben Morgan, Billy VunipolaReuse content