Versatility the key as Stuart Lancaster swings the axe

Two dates with France over the next fortnight will decide the fate of the remaining 39 players prior to England’s final warm-up against Ireland on 5 September

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The Independent Online

Jake White, who won a World Cup for South Africa, insists that at international level 80 per cent of coaching is about selection. So this week’s cull of seven players from the 46-man England squad will have been scrutinised almost as keenly around the globe as it was within the portals of the host nation’s Pennyhill Park base.

In truth, the fog of uncertainty has cleared only slightly following Stuart Lancaster’s pruning, because none of the seven released have been capped this year and their omission was somewhat predictable.

That is not to say the news was universally well received, with the axing of Kyle Eastmond, in particular, prompting a volley of irate responses on Twitter. Former England Sevens coach Mike Friday was one dissenter: “Sinking feeling we are not going to play with ambition, just attrition. Nothing much in midfield now apart from JJ [Jonathan Joseph].” Certainly the absence of the twinkle-toed No 12 leaves the midfield light on guile.

Like all the jettisoned players, Eastmond has paid the price for being a specialist, because Lancaster is looking to cover all the bases in the final 31-man squad that he must submit by 31 August. Even the world champions, New Zealand, are tuned in to this thinking, with their occasional selection of fly-half Colin Slade as a wing or full-back an attempt to create a utility player as insurance against injuries.   

“You’ve got to have versatility and flexibility to cover those 31 slots,” Lancaster said. “You need five props but a tight-head who can play loose-head, you need a 15 who can play 10, or a 10 who can play 12, because you’re one injury away from having to utilise that flexibility within your squad.”

That means the uncapped Henry Slade looks to be competing with Billy Twelvetrees for a fly-half/centre place, while Alex Goode and Danny Cipriani are vying for a 15/10 slot.

The release of Marland Yarde, Chris Ashton and Semesa Rokodugini leaves England with only three specialist wings, so Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and Jonny May will all make the cut. Joseph can also cover wing, as he did briefly in this year’s Six Nations.

The dispensing of Matt Kvesic leaves Calum Clark as the only out-and-out ball-poacher and, at a time when Australia and South Africa are targeting the breakdown more than ever through the likes of Pocock, Hooper, Louw and Coetzee, it’s to be hoped the uncapped Saint can avoid the final cut.

Two dates with France over the next fortnight will decide the fate of the remaining 39 players prior to England’s final warm-up against Ireland on 5 September.

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