Rugby World Cup 2015: Stuart Lancaster sets great store by team spirit, which may have tipped balance in Sam Burgess's favour

BRIAN ASHTON COLUMN: It may be that the others in the squad have seen something in him, or heard things from him, that makes them feel they want him there

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The Independent Online

Stuart Lancaster has moved into a new stage of his World Cup preparation: the agonising process of squad selection is behind him and the crossing of this boundary will bring him some relief. The decisions on the question-mark players – Sam Burgess, Henry Slade, Danny Cipriani, Kieran Brookes and Alex Corbisiero, George Kruis and Dave Attwood – were difficult ones for the coach and he’ll be pleased to be moving on.

The periphery is always the complicated bit when it comes to finalising a group of 30 or so individuals: the last three or four places tend to take up as much time as the first 26 or 27 put together. And it doesn’t help when there are constant drips of information – accurate and not so accurate – in the media. I know from experience that the conversations with those being left out are, on a human and very personal level, incredibly delicate. Leaks are disconcerting at the best of times, and they will have driven Stuart to distraction.

Like everyone else, I’m on the outside looking in these days and there will have been things going on in camp that none of us knows much about and shouldn’t know about. My observation is that Stuart places great store by what he sees of his players when they are together as a group. When I was in his position, I preferred the evidence thrown up by real matches, against real opposition, to any other kind that might have been available, but all coaches have their own approach.


There has been a lot of talk about “intangibles” – the whole team spirit thing; the ethos in the squad; the emotional engagement between the players. It seems Burgess plays quite a big role in this area. In many respects, you get what you see with him: he’s a big bloke, he’s fearless, he tackles unusually heavily, he’s played a good deal of rugby league at the very highest level. All this has its relevance and it may be that the others in the squad have seen something in him, or heard things from him, that makes them feel they want him there. When making the selection, that may have tipped the balance.

My concern with him is a positional one. When things get messy, as they did in Paris the other night, you need someone pretty smart in the No 12 position to help out your outside-half. I’m not saying Sam can’t do it, it’s just that we’ve never seen him do it. To pick him in that position is a big call because there is a fair bit of quality, of differing types, among those who have missed out.

Yes, Manu Tuilagi effectively disqualified himself from selection, but the likes of Billy Twelvetrees, Kyle Eastmond and Luther Burrell have been in and around the camp for a good while and played their share of big games. All things considered, it’s an interesting move to pick both Burgess and Slade at centre when they have so little experience between them.

Much has been made of the parallels between Burgess and Andy Farrell, who, as England’s current backs coach, must have had a strong say in selection. When I picked Andy as a No 12 for the 2007 World Cup in France, he had the same kind of reputation as a master of the “intangibles”, although I was never sure how intangible these things were, given that all the other players saw them as “realities”.

To my mind, the difference between Farrell then and Burgess now is that Andy had played a fair bit of rugby at 12 before that World Cup, stringing together some strong performances for Saracens and getting a valuable taste of Six Nations rugby in testing circumstances. In addition, you have to remember that he had spent a lot of his league career as a first or second receiver – a reasonable equivalent of the 12 role in union – and possessed an outstanding left-footed kicking game, which can be worth its weight in gold. He was a quality distributor, good enough to play  fly-half for Great Britain in league.

Talking of the midfield arts, I have to say I’m disappointed Cipriani didn’t make it, although I suspect he wasn’t really in the running or ever featured seriously in the coaches’ front-line thinking. He’s a game-changer, a game-breaker – a rare commodity. Might there have been a way of creating space in the squad with a view to incorporating his talents? For instance, do we really need three scrum-halves at a home World Cup, when replacements are easy to whistle up?

I think the other either/or calls were fair enough and there may yet be changes in personnel because of injury. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Dylan Hartley, the No 1 hooker in the country by some distance, will have a part to play. In his self-inflicted absence, the three players chosen will really have to front up. There will be an awful lot of attention on them, especially at line-out time.