Stuart Lancaster has enjoyed happier breakfast meetings – his early-morning conversation with the rejected centre Luther Burrell, something of a protégé in recent years, was particularly upsetting – but by the time the England head coach announced his World Cup squad to the masses, he was feeling better about life. All things must pass eventually. Even a red-rose back midfield with Sam Burgess at the heart of it.
The fact that “Slammin Sam”, currently a one-cap wonder from rugby league with a track record in international union of two monster tackles and a visit to the sin bin, beat Burrell to the final place in the England back division throws up any number of questions, the most pertinent of which is a simple: “Why?”
The Yorkshireman has been on the Yellow Brick Road to World Cup selection since he arrived in the 15-man code late last year, but he has done precious little to justify the fast-track treatment.
Yet Lancaster, together with his back-line coaching specialists Andy Farrell and Mike Catt, has such faith in the “intangibles” Burgess brings to the mix – the “presence” and the “aura” and the “big-match temperament” – that he has felt able to take a very big plunge into some very deep waters. The boss was at pains yesterday to insist that he did not see this most divisive of selections as a “gamble”, but that is what it is. Suddenly, the cautious Cumbrian is in high-roller territory.
It comes to something when, after three and a half years of trial and error in a position that has not been filled satisfactorily since Will Greenwood called it quits more than a decade ago, England find themselves heading into a global tournament with two centres boasting that precise number of caps between them. Burrell, a fixture in the starting line-up in successive Six Nations tournaments, must be wondering what the hell happened. So, to virtually the same extent, must the likes of Billy Twelvetrees and Kyle Eastmond, both of whom are first-choice centres for their clubs – in stark contrast to Burgess, they might add.
Still, the die is cast, and it may be that Lancaster has hit on something with the second of his midfield latecomers, the Exeter youngster Henry Slade. On returning from the high-altitude camp in Denver in July, he informed Slade that he was still in the running for a World Cup place but would have to reveal more of himself – make some noise among his supposed elders and betters rather than play dumb – if he wanted to close the deal.
It seems the head coach subsequently heard enough from the West Countryman to rethink his attempt to solve the most pressing of England’s selection conundrums. Slade’s abilities as a distributor, together with a left-footed kicking game of weapons-grade power, could drive the England attack to heights they have not visited since Brian Ashton was on the coaching staff.
Certainly, the possibilities could be sensed during the first half of the opening warm-up game against France at Twickenham, when Slade helped create three high-quality tries. It will be fascinating to see how Lancaster uses him when things get serious next month.
For all that, England are still in a state of midfield flux, unlike Australia or Wales or, heaven forfend, New Zealand. Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph, seemingly the first-choice centres, have never once played together, which takes some believing. To that extent, Burgess and Slade have the advantage over them.
But for this to work – for Burgess to convince the doubters that he is worthy of the privileges he has received from the red-rose hierarchy – he has to lay some solid evidence of his assumed brilliance before the great unwashed.
Until he does, it might be as well to remember that the original Yellow Brick Road led people to some very odd places indeed.Reuse content