Those who dismiss second-string internationals as the rugby equivalent of the Gang Show – worthy and inoffensive but decidedly sub-standard, featuring lots of enthusiastic young people in shorts – never witnessed one of the biennial bloodbaths at the Jean Bouin stadium in Paris, where the respective B teams of France and England indulged in what amounted to a series of crimes against the person spread over 80 minutes, or revelled in the sporting version of class warfare that broke out every time the English met the Welsh at one-rung-down level. Five Nations weekends in the amateur era were not complete without a dust-up before the main event.
There was always a debate over whether these fixtures were worth the carnage, not to mention the expense, and since the dawning of professionalism, the majority of Europe's so-called "tier one" countries have scrapped their A/B outfits at one time or another. France and Wales are the current non-combatants and however keen Twickenham might be to see the restoration of a full second-team championship, there is little prospect of all six major northern hemisphere powers running two adult representative sides simultaneously.
Italy are game, though, and while they found themselves on the wrong end of a hiding at Worcester at the weekend, some of their up-and-comers – the 22-year-old outside-half Ricardo Bocchino, the similarly-aged centre Andrea Pratichetti and the 23-year-old flanker Francesco Minto, to name but three – will be the better for it. Not every team in Azzurri history has found itself 30-odd points down early in the final quarter and kept playing. Antonio Pavanello's side did just that and had the last word when Giulio Toniolatti ran in a consolation try in the ninth minute of injury time.
As for England, there was one major negative amid the many positives, and it concerned the much talked-about Harlequins prop Joe Marler. There was nothing wrong with his scrummaging or his tackling or his industry at close quarters – far from it. In fact, there was nothing wrong with his rugby at all. But he was a crushing disappointment in the hair department. After wowing the Premiership's paying public and, even better, getting on the nerves of many an old fart on the Quins committee by playing with a Mohican cut, he took the course of least official resistance on Saturday by wearing a scrum cap. Did he opt for a change of style before kick-off? Had his hair been freshly razored in the shape of a hedgehog, or a wine gum, or an amphibious landing craft? Sadly, we'll never know.
Some things were very definitely known by the end of the game, however. It was, for example, clear that Marler's front-row partner Alex Corbisiero will be a live contender for the World Cup squad when Martin Johnson, the England manager, makes his call in August. It was equally obvious that James Simpson-Daniel, one of the most gifted attacking players never to be a cast-iron certainty for the Test team, is every bit as good now as he was when he made mincemeat of some bloke by the name of Lomu a few years back. He scored two tries at Sixways, and if Luke Narraway's magical inside flick paved the way for the first, the second was very much a solo creation.
Assuming he stays fit – hardly one of life's foregone conclusions, given Simpson-Daniel's depressingly long record of injury and illness – he must surely challenge for a place in Johnson's party. Certainly, this is his aim. "The World Cup is my big picture," he said after the game. "If I'm going to play in one, this is my opportunity, and if it means running around Worcester with the Saxons, I'm happy to do it." Does he fancy his chances? "I've been told I'm on the radar," he replied. "If I wasn't in their thoughts, I don't suppose I'd have been here today."
Simpson-Daniel can play on either wing, and is equally happy – and equally productive – at outside centre, which happens to be one of England's more obvious problem positions. Johnson's midfield is screaming out for a player who can run round opponents as well as through them, who has attacking credentials as well as defensive ones. The fact that the French, who know a thing or two about midfield play and have half-a-dozen centres who could walk blindfolded into the current red-rose side, identified the Gloucester man as a transfer target long ago should tell you all you need to know.
As it turned out, Simpson-Daniel knocked back a couple of Top 14 clubs, notably Castres, and signed up for another three-year tour of duty at Kingsholm. "There were several days of hard thinking," he admitted. "I was over in France last weekend – some Northampton supporters, there for the Heineken Cup, spotted me – and I enjoyed looking round and talking to the coaches. But I decided I didn't want to go just yet, and re-signed for Gloucester. I'm glad it's out of the way."
All this suggests either that Simpson-Daniel has been told he has an England future, or that he thinks he should have one and is determined to do whatever it takes. The Saxons have one more game, against Irish Wolfhounds in Belfast, before Johnson selects an initial World Cup training party of around 50 in late May or early June. According to the coach, Stuart Lancaster, the squad for Friday's match at Ravenhill will be fleshed out by players left out of the mix for the opening Six Nations meeting with Wales on the same night. Simpson-Daniel deserves to hold his place. Not to put too fine a point on it, he deserves a whole lot more.
England Saxons: Tries Simpson-Daniel 2, Monye, Gaskell, Brown, Tuilagi, Hodgson. Conversions Myler 5. Italy A: Tries Buso, Toniolatti. Conversions Bocchino 2. Penalty Bocchino.
England Saxons M Brown (Harlequins); J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), M Tuilagi (Leicester), W Twelvetrees (Leicester), U Monye (Harlequins); S Myler (Northampton), R Wigglesworth (Saracens); J Marler (Harlequins), L Mears (Bath), A Corbisiero (London Irish), G Kitchener (Worcester), C Day (Northampton), J Gaskell (Sale), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), L Narraway (Gloucester).
Replacements O Morgan (Gloucester) for Brown 59; B Barritt (Saracens) for Twelvetrees 59; P Hodgson (London Irish) for Wigglesworth 59; D Bell (Bath) for Corbisiero 59; J Buckland (London Irish) for Mears 63; G Robson (Harlequins) for Kitchenerr 69; A Saull (Saracens) for Narraway 75.
Italy A P Buso (Aironi); G Toniolatti (Aironi), A Pratichetti (Treviso), M Pratichetti (Aironi), M Sepe (Treviso); R Bocchino (Aironi), F Semenzato (Treviso); M Aguero (Aironi), F Sbaraglini (Treviso), L Cittadini (Treviso), A Pavanello (Treviso, capt), M Bortolami (Aironi), V Bernabo (Treviso), F Minto (Treviso), J Sole (Aironi).Replacements F Staibano (Aironi), for Cittadini 56; M Rizzo (Treviso) for Aguero 61; G Pavan (Aironi) for Sepe 63; N Belardo (Prato) for Sole 69; A Marcato (Padova) for Buso 69; A Manici (GRAN Parma) for Sbaraglini 74; J Furno (Aironi) for Pavanello 74.
Referee P Allan (Scotland).Reuse content