Premiership rugby is regarded as a vice rather than a virtue by those who see international affairs as the be-all and end-all of the game in England, but even though club demands have forced Stuart Lancaster to reshape next week’s training programme ahead of the important Six Nations meeting with Scotland, the red-rose coach has reason to be thankful for the fixture congestion.
The Saracens centre Brad Barritt and the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes, fully restored to fitness after missing the opening tranche of championship matches through injury, will both be on league duty this weekend and, if they perform strongly, Lancaster will be sorely tempted to pick them for the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham. A second Northampton forward, the flanker Tom Wood, and the Leicester second-rower Geoff Parling are also of interest to the England hierarchy, not least because of the recent line-out malfunctions.
Alex Goode is another who will be active this weekend, but he is in a slightly different situation to Barritt, his Saracens clubmate, and the others. Goode started against Ireland in Dublin last weekend – Mike Brown of Harlequins, the senior full-back, was concussed and therefore off-limits – but with Brown scheduled to train fully on Friday, an early return to the status quo ante is on the cards.
Lancaster said that he was keeping an “open mind” on the situation at No 15. “We know Mike has a lot to bring to the team, but a lot of work came Alex’s way in Dublin,” he remarked.
“When you see Jonathan Sexton [the outstanding Ireland playmaker] operating against other teams, he always seems to find grass with his tactical kicking, but Alex managed to cover all those eventualities and dealt well with the high ball.”
For all the public support, Goode is unlikely to feel brilliant about being the only member of the starting line-up not held in camp for pre-Scotland training; indeed, he may have to play like Serge Blanco and JPR Williams combined against Wasps on Sunday to resist Brown’s eagerly anticipated challenge.
Personnel changes are certainly in Lancaster’s thoughts, although the process of thinking things through still has some way to run.
“You talk about momentum and motivation and all that sort of stuff,” he said when asked whether he might stick rather than twist despite Sunday’s bitterly disappointing defeat, “but sometimes you can freshen up the side a little bit. When you have trusted players available, they come under consideration. I think there is a greater emphasis on the Premiership games this weekend, without a doubt.”
The coach highlighted a number of areas of dissatisfaction, notably some alarming indiscipline in and around the breakdown – England lost the penalty count as heavily as they lost the match – and the fluffed attacking line-outs at the back end of the first half.
“We had to be nine out of 10, or even 10 out of 10, in terms of execution against a quality side as motivated as Ireland,” he said. “We were no better than six or seven – maybe eight by the end, when the momentum had shifted our way.”
Sixteen players were held in camp by the coach: all the Dublin starters bar Goode, plus Brown and the Gloucester midfielder Billy Twelvetrees, who will train on Friday because Luther Burrell of Northampton is struggling with calf trouble.
Meanwhile, the Scotland coach Vern Cotter is keeping 11 players away from this weekend’s Pro 12 activity, including the Glasgow stand-off Finn Russell, who will be recalled to face England following suspension.
South African officials have indicated their intention to pitch for the hosting rights to the 2023 World Cup, which is also a target for Ireland and Italy. Formal expressions of interest must be made by the middle of June, although the tender process will not begin until next year. The decision will be announced in May 2017.
“By the time the tournament comes round, it will be 28 years since Nelson Mandela handed the trophy to Francois Pienaar in Johannesburg,” said the South African Rugby Union chief executive Jurie Roux. “I am sure the competition will be fierce, but this country has a unique experience to offer travelling supporters.”Reuse content