Six Nations 2014: Stuart Lancaster warns dropped Freddie Burns as George Ford is handed No 10 opening
Gloucester playmaker told to sort out his club future while England call up three new wingers for Six Nations campaign
Less than two months ago, the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, identified Freddie Burns of Gloucester as a likely starter in the first red-rose Test against New Zealand, the reigning world champions, in Auckland this summer. That was then. Burns has struggled so badly for form and focus in recent weeks, he has lost his place in Lancaster's squad for the forthcoming Six Nations, having been overtaken by two rival playmakers: George Ford of Bath and Stephen Myler of Northampton.
All Burns has to look forward to in the immediate term is an outing for the second-string England Saxons against the Irish Wolfhounds at Kingsholm, his home ground for the time being, a fortnight tomorrow. It is a heavy fall for a player who could reasonably claim to be the most creative attacking No 10 in the country, Danny Cipriani or no Danny Cipriani.
Lancaster had some kind words to say about Burns as he announced a whole bunch of squads to cover various pieces of international business between now and the end of the northern hemisphere season. "I wouldn't say I'm worried about Freddie because we can all see his talent," the coach commented, "and all players go through a dip in form at some time or other." But Lancaster also acknowledged that Burns currently finds himself in a difficult place when he added: "What's gone on off the field has clearly affected his performances on it, and he needs to put it to bed."
Burns, heavily linked with an impending move to Leicester and profoundly distracted as a result, is still in the 33-man senior elite squad from which the lion's share of the summer tourists will be drawn later in the campaign, as are eight players currently on the casualty list: the props Alex Corbisiero and David Wilson; the back-five forwards Geoff Parling and Tom Croft; and the backs Manu Tuilagi, Marland Yarde, Christian Wade and Ben Foden. He is, therefore, still a candidate for the flight to the Land of the Long White Shroud, as All Black country is called by those many rugby folk who view the place as a graveyard. But Ford, in particular, has the capacity to really hurt him over the course of the Six Nations. He needs to rediscover the best of himself, quickly.
The head coach certainly sees Ford as a live contender for the next World Cup, which will unfold on these shores in the autumn of next year. The 20-year-old son of Mike Ford, who was England's defence strategist at the last global gathering in 2011, is currently mining a rich seam of form at the Recreation Ground, having made the switch from Leicester a few months ago, and while his promotion to Six Nations status is the direct result of Toby Flood's disappearance from red-rose affairs – the long-serving midfielder's move to France next season effectively makes him persona non grata as far as the national coaches are concerned – he would have been difficult to ignore whatever the circumstances.
"You never say never and the door is not completely closed on Toby," said Lancaster when asked whether, in exceptional circumstances, he might bring Flood back into the fold, "but it's the furthest thing from my mind right now. I'm disappointed he has chosen to play in France – we spoke about it and I tried to talk him out of it – but I respect his decision. Equally, he knew that by making this call, he'd force me to look elsewhere for my No 10s.
"George had a great game for Bath against Leicester last weekend and that was the tipping point for us, but we've known about him for a long time because he's been on the pathway and we know that his club coaches feel he's developed massively in terms of his maturity, his game understanding. I think it's the right time to get him involved."
No fewer than three wings – Jonny May of Gloucester, Jack Nowell of Exeter and Anthony Watson of Bath – have been elevated to the Six Nations party as a result of the orthopaedic fallout affecting the outside backs and there are also injury-cover places for the Northampton centre Luther Burrell, the Wasps loose-head prop Matt Mullan, the Sale tight-head specialist Henry Thomas, the Leicester lock Ed Slater and the Exeter flanker Tom Johnson. In addition, Lancaster has summoned Richard Wigglesworth of Saracens, the form scrum-half in the country, to train with the tournament squad, along with Myler, whose outstanding performances for Northampton this term have been under-valued by many, and the Bath hooker Rob Webber.
Interestingly, there was some equally radical surgery performed on the Saxons squad, with first appearances for two of the country's most talked-about No 8s: Sam Dickinson of Northampton and Exeter's Dave Ewers. They were selected ahead of the more familiar Leicester duo of Jordan Crane and Thomas Waldrom. There was also a welcome place for the Bath loose-head prop Nathan Catt, one of the Premiership's more mysterious figures. Catt would surely have been capped by now, had Bath given him some proper game time. As it is, he has the devil's own job to find a way past Corbisiero, Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler – but at least he can make a start.
England squad: 2014 Six Nations
D Attwood (Bath)
D Cole (Leicester)
D Hartley (Northampton)
M Kvesic (Gloucester)
T Johnson (Exeter)
J Launchbury (Wasps)
C Lawes (Northampton)
J Marler (Harlequins)
B Morgan (Gloucester)
M Mullan (Wasps)
C Robshaw (Harlequins)
E Slater (Leicester)
H Thomas (Sale Sharks)
B Vunipola (Saracens)
M Vunipola (Saracens)
R Webber (Bath)
T Wood (Northampton)
T Youngs (Leicester)
C Ashton (Saracens)
B Barritt (Saracens)
M Brown (Harlequins)
L Burrell (Northampton)
D Care (Harlequins)
L Dickson (Northampton)
K Eastmond (Bath)
O Farrell (Saracens)
G Ford (Bath)
A Goode (Saracens)
J May (Gloucester)
S Myler (Northampton)
J Nowell (Exeter)
B Twelvetrees (Gloucester)
B Youngs (Leicester)
A Watson (Bath)
R Wigglesworth (Saracens)
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