Stuart Lancaster frustrated at block on Sam Dickinson
England coach stopped by RFU agreement from bringing in impressive No 8 for autumn Tests
Stuart Lancaster has been exceptionally sure-footed in his progress through the minefield of rugby politics since taking charge of England almost two years ago, but not even he finds it easy to avoid what Basil Fawlty would have called "the bleeding obvious". Any head coach asked to pick a squad in high summer for a three-match programme in November inevitably finds himself a hostage to fortune, and Lancaster admitted as much.
There are three high-performing No 8s in the English game right now and two of them, Sam Dickinson of Northampton and Dave Ewers of Exeter, are not in the Test squad – or, indeed, in the second-string Saxons group. The third, Billy Vunipola of Saracens, is a warm favourite to start the match with Australia at Twickenham in a little over three weeks, largely because the senior No 8, Ben Morgan of Gloucester, is off the pace and out of form.
Lancaster would relish the freedom to fast-track one or both of his uncapped back-rowers into the representative mix, but he does not have it – even though the Leicester loose forward Tom Croft, a member of the elite squad named during the summer, is unlikely to play again this season after suffering a serious knee injury. Under the current agreement between the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership clubs, the coach's room for manoeuvre is strictly limited.
"The good thing is that we're developing strength in depth," the coach said in Morley, where the latest England playing strip was formally unveiled. "It's not long ago that we went to Wales in the Six Nations with Tom Wood [the specialist blind-side flanker from Northampton] at No 8, which wasn't ideal. But to pick an elite squad in July or August and then see someone like Dickinson come along and have a great September… that's part of the challenge.
"Ewers is another playing with real power, but while bringing players in from outside the squad is something that can be achieved, it hasn't been achieved yet. On current evidence, a player like Sam would certainly be there or thereabouts for the Saxons."
At least Lancaster is in a position to promote another uncapped Northampton player, the strong- running inside centre Luther Burrell, into the senior squad from the Saxons, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the 25-year-old from Huddersfield will beat Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester to the No 12 shirt on Wallaby day.
Twelvetrees is a victim of the transparent inadequacies of the Gloucester tight five – the same goes for Morgan – while Burrell is having himself a ball behind a Northampton unit who have been going forward at a rate of knots. "Luther is probably the form centre in the country," said Lancaster, who has lost two centres, Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi, to long-term injury. "He has a better passing game than people give him credit for and Northampton have done a good job in improving his defence and strengthening his mindset. But we don't judge on one or two games: track records and consistency mean something. And anyway, I like to leave selection until I've coached players myself."
Many decisions will be made during the forthcoming pre-Test camp in Leeds, which begins a week next Monday. One of Lancaster's first calls will be on the captaincy and while he would not be drawn on Chris Robshaw's chances of retaining the job, he said nothing that might keep the Harlequins flanker awake with worry. "I'd have no problem going into the autumn with Chris at No 7 and he hasn't done anything wrong as captain, that's for sure," he remarked.
He was adamant that no news did not automatically mean bad news for the incumbent, who some believe is under pressure from the aforementioned Wood. "We'll leave it until we see what happens in Leeds: you make calls on form and fitness and there are two big European club weekends coming up," Lancaster said. "Why make an early captaincy announcement when it could influence selection? I want to keep the level of competition high."
Back on the politics, Lancaster chose his words extremely carefully when pressed on the potential fall-out from the row over the future of the Heineken Cup. "These are difficult times for everyone," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that we need that next level of rugby, which puts players under a different kind of pressure. I hope we get a resolution sooner rather than later." So do we all.
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