Sure things tend to be at a premium when the best 40-odd players in England are chasing 31 World Cup vacancies, but this much is certain: Stuart Lancaster, the red rose coach, did not expect five uncapped outsiders to be scrapping for places at this late stage in the preparatory proceedings.
More remarkable still, the rookie quintet may even survive this evening’s cull and make it all the way to the home-and-away warm-up meetings with France.
The centres Henry Slade and Sam Burgess; the hookers Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie; the flanker Calum Clark… each man has performed well enough in training, both at the team base in Surrey and at the high-altitude camp in Colorado, to justify his existence at this rarefied level of the sport.
And if it is hard to imagine that more than a couple of them will still be standing when Lancaster makes his third and final cut at the end of the month, it remains a remarkable collective effort.
While the coach took a good deal of pleasure in announcing that some “authoritative” accounts of his selectorial reasoning were published while he was on holiday in San Diego and had yet to meet with his fellow back-roomers, and was positively gleeful in stating that some of the “information” was as wrong as it was premature, he at no point suggested that Burgess, picked on rugby league reputation rather than rugby union proficiency, was in the slightest danger of making an early trip home.
It may well be that a season’s worth of evidence at Bath will count for nothing – that Burgess stays, while the West Country club’s first-choice inside centre, Kyle Eastmond, goes.
Slade’s ability to perform both centre roles, as well as being an outside-half by breeding, is of obvious interest, which begs the question as to why the Exeter youngster was not given a Test blooding before Christmas.
“You can’t just throw people into decision-making positions and say ‘away you go’,” the boss asserted. On that basis, Burgess will be ready for an international debut at the next World Cup rather than this one.
Lancaster was on far firmer ground with his hookers. “We spent a lot of time investing in Dylan Hartley,” he said, referring to the errant Northampton captain whose rank indiscipline has made him persona non grata – just as it did ahead of the 2007 World Cup in France and the 2013 Lions series in Australia. In other words, the England hierarchy were depending on Hartley and his 60-plus caps and now find themselves up a gum tree.
It is already clear that Tom Youngs of Leicester will start the global tournament as the number one No 2, supported by Rob Webber of Bath. George, left out of the original party despite playing an entire season’s worth of eye-catching rugby with Saracens, and Cowan-Dickie, one of the many vibrant young talents at Exeter, are therefore scrapping over a single place.
Cowan-Dickie has been on Lancaster’s radar for a while, but George, by some distance the best line-out thrower in the squad, is the man with momentum.
As for Clark, it is a classic case of “close, but not close enough”. The Northampton back-rower has been around the squad from the start of Lancaster’s stewardship and is patently a favourite of the top brass, but he received a long ban just when he was pushing hardest for a first cap and has since watched Chris Robshaw, the England skipper, develop a reputation for physical indestructibility. He may stay in the mix for a while, but the final step appears to be too great.
If Lancaster boxes clever, he can avoid the really difficult cuts in the tight-forward department, where the props and locks are engaged in the mother and father of a battle for preferment. The coach has not even announced how many of the 46-man squad will be back home in time for the weekend, let alone identified the unlucky ones.
Whatever the truth of it, he will be working overtime next week ahead of the first warm-up game at Twickenham. Those who survive the cut will all have their virtues, but a worrying number of them will be deeply inexperienced.Reuse content