The thorny subject of England’s midfield formation at this autumn’s World Cup continued to generate more heat than light yesterday as the training squad engaged in yet another brutally physical training session at the team base in Surrey, but the head coach Stuart Lancaster went a long way towards illuminating another dark corner of red rose selection policy by giving Jonny May a major mention in dispatches.
Gloucester’s super-fast wing was dropped from the starting line-up midway through last season’s Six Nations Championship following a couple of half-baked performances in the No 11 shirt: Jack Nowell of Exeter, as hard-baked as they come, replaced him and stayed put for the duration.
With Anthony Watson of Bath pretty much nailed on as a World Cup first-choicer and three other contenders – a second Recreation Grounder in Semesa Rokoduguni, the Harlequins wide man Marland Yarde and dear old Chris Ashton of Saracens – finishing the domestic campaign like trains, May’s international prospects appeared bleak.
But an impressive contribution during last month’s high-altitude camp in Colorado has persuaded Lancaster to look at him afresh. “Jonny was probably the stand-out player,” the coach reported.
“They’ve all been pushing hard, but Jonny really has the bit between his teeth. Some players react to being dropped by going away and feeling sorry for themselves. He responded by saying: ‘Right, I’m going to work harder.’”
Lancaster has never been in the habit of playing the “red herring” game: when he builds someone up, he does it in all sincerity.
May can therefore expect to avoid the squad cull scheduled for this Friday and look ahead to playing an active role in at least one of the two warm-up matches against France – the first at Twickenham on Saturday week, the second in Paris seven days later.
Ashton and company must wait anxiously for the coach’s call in the full-back position, where Mike Brown of Harlequins and Alex Goode of Saracens are the specialists. If both make the cut, there will be only three wings at the World Cup.
There was also a positive report on two props, Matt Mullan of Wasps and Kieran Brookes of Newcastle, who are doing their level best to gatecrash a cosy little party of front-row luminaries including Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola, Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole and David Wilson.
Brookes, almost as fit as he is big after sharpening himself up in the States, looks increasingly like a viable World Cup option. As does the uncapped rugby league refugee Sam Burgess, despite Lancaster’s reluctance to talk him up in public.
Reports suggesting that two infinitely more experienced inside centres, Billy Twelvetrees and Kyle Eastmond, were about to be ditched to make way for the Yorkshireman left Lancaster a long way short of ecstatic – “While we have come to recognise that speculation is part and parcel of the job, this was not ideal,” he muttered – but there was nothing in his remarks to suggest that Burgess’ place is in any immediate danger.
“Slammin’ Sam” plays alongside Eastmond at Bath: indeed, it was Eastmond’s attacking brilliance in the No 12 position that forced the newcomer out of midfield and into the back row of the West Country team’s pack.
Has the close relationship between the two made the current situation more difficult, or did Burgess see his clubmate as just another rival blocking his route into the World Cup elite?
“Another bloke to get over? That’s a really poor way to look at it,” he responded, with feeling. “It’s not about getting over someone. As much as you want to do well, this is not an individual sport. It’s a team sport, and we demonstrate that every day we’re together.
“We’re in the same position, Kyle and me, but I’d hate it to be played out as me versus him. That’s not the case.”
Ben Morgan, a certainty for one of the two No 8 berths if he completes his recovery from a broken leg, was involved in some of yesterday’s contact work, but still has some way to go before being declared fit.
“I’m as confident as I can be about it, but Ben will definitely have to play in one of the games against France to be considered for the squad,” Lancaster said.Reuse content