If there are two things that continue to get the collective goat of union traditionalists with a streak of the Little Englander about them, it is the national management's dual obsession with recruits from rugby league and imports from New Zealand. The immediate appearance of the just-qualified Bath centre Shontayne Hape in the red-rose squad will, therefore, doubly annoy them. A league-raised Maori, occupying the position that once belonged to Will Carling? Begads! Is nothing sacred?
Chris Ashton, the other uncapped member of Martin Johnson's 32-strong Six Nations party, has also switched codes: indeed, he was born in, and played league for, the once mighty Wigan. The Premiership's current try-scoring hot-shot will be given an easier ride than Hape, however. Wigan may be a foreign town to dyed-in-the-wool union types, but it is less foreign than Auckland.
England have done everything possible to add a league dimension to their team, but with the exception of the uniquely elusive Jason Robinson, whose extraordinary combination of instant acceleration and dazzling footwork would have catapulted him to the top in any handling game he chose to play, the project has been seriously flawed. Barrie-John Mather, Henry Paul, Andy Farrell, Lesley Vainikolo... none of them ripped up many saplings, let alone trees.
Yet still the selectors persist, to the extent that bright young union-reared midfielders like Dominic Waldouck of Wasps suddenly find themselves overtaken in the pecking order. Hape, who won 14 league caps for New Zealand before joining Bradford Bulls in 2003 and turning himself into an Englishman of the residential variety, is three inches taller and almost two stones heavier than Waldouck, and this appears to have been enough to swing the argument with Johnson and his colleagues, who prize size above virtually all other virtues.
There are now three New Zealanders in the elite squad, the centre Riki Flutey and the hooker Dylan Hartley being the others. Johnson, who spent time in All Black country himself as an up-and-coming lock, does not care a hoot. "Is it relevant?" the manager asked yesterday. "It's about what they do when they're selected, about the level of commitment they bring to the group. I played with guys born overseas, particularly in South Africa and Nigeria, throughout my England career. There was never any doubt over Mike Catt's commitment to the cause, was there?
"We've had our eye on Hape for a year or so, and now he's eligible, we think it better to take a close look at him in the environment of the senior party rather than have him spend time in the Saxons squad. Why? Because he's not a 22-year-old. He's an experienced guy with an outstanding defensive game. The No 12 slot has been a little tricky for us, but with Flutey returning after injury, we feel we're developing some real competition in that area."
England have struggled to identify exactly what they most want to see from their inside centre. At the start of last November's three-Test series, they opted for a southern hemisphere-style "five-eighths" system, pairing Jonny Wilkinson with Shane Geraghty in a twin outside-half arrangement. By the end of it, they had ditched Geraghty's playmaking and kicking skills for the route-one muscularity of Ayoola Erinle. As Hape has no kicking game to speak of, it seems they will follow the second route over the coming weeks of the Six Nations. "If kicking is not one of Shontayne's strengths, we'll find a way round it by using other options," Johnson said.
Precious few recruits from rugby league have cut it in professional union – certainly, the numbers do not stack up against the number of union players who, during the amateur era, abandoned the 15-man game to head north, where money could be earned openly and honestly. Most union coaches take the view that the further a league import stands from the pack, the better chance he has of prospering at the top level. Wings? Yes. Forwards? Never. Midfielders? Um.
It may be that Hape is good enough to break the mould, although his 30-odd appearances for Bath have not made a persuasive case one way or the other. The sceptics expect Ashton, a pure wing, to make the better fist of things at the highest level.Reuse content