England have toured South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina since Stuart Lancaster took charge of international affairs following the ill-starred World Cup campaign on All Black turf in 2011. There have been four Six Nations jamborees, a plethora of autumn Tests at Twickenham, umpteen training camps in leafy Surrey and enough discussions about the future direction of travel to make the Labour Party seem decisive by comparison.
And guess what? By the end of this week, two uncapped centres could still be in the shake-up for a place at next month’s global tournament. If the union punditocracy is reading the runes correctly, the two best footballing midfielders in the country – Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester and Kyle Eastmond of Bath – will have the dreaded words “not wanted on voyage” stamped on their foreheads by close of play on 31 , when Lancaster and the rest of the red-rose coaching hierarchy make the latest cut to their World Cup squad.
This would leave Henry Slade of Exeter and a second Bath player, Sam Burgess, among the surviving contenders for the 31-strong party charged with doing the business in front of the home-town crowds next month. Flabbergasting? The word is not nearly strong enough.
Lancaster had ample opportunity last season to give Slade a taste of life in a senior England shirt but chose not to do so despite the 22-year-old Devonian’s blinding form at club level. It was an error of judgement, for sure. As for Burgess, who came to the union code from rugby league before Christmas and was fast-tracked so quickly the G-forces could have killed him… well, he has shown no midfield form at all, which explains why Bath now use him as a blindside flanker.
When the head coach appears in public forum on 4 August for the first time since his training squad, currently numbering 46, returned from their summer camp in Colorado – a rather demanding get-together, if descriptions such as “brutal” and “gruesome” are even remotely accurate – he will no doubt argue that both Slade and Burgess performed outstandingly well. And he will be on solid ground: as the Stateside sessions were conducted behind closed doors, there is no hard evidence on which to challenge his assertion.
But several facts remain, all of which beggar belief. Burgess, undeniably a kingpin performer in the 13-man code, may have a so-called “aura” about him and may indeed possess the strength of sporting character that separates the true high achievers from the motley crew of also-rans. Yet it is difficult to think of a single England player in the modern history of the game who has done less on the field of play – as opposed to the practice paddock – to justify a place among the red-rose elite. If Lancaster goes with him, he will put himself on the high wire, with no prospect of a soft landing in the event of a fall.
Slade, an outside-half by breeding, is in a slightly different category. We know he can play – that much is obvious to all but the fool and the blind man – and unlike Burgess, he has the full range of midfield weaponry at his disposal. It is also true to say that as he can function in both centre roles, expertise across three back-line positions makes him more valuable than gold dust in a World Cup scenario. Yet his uncapped status is an indictment of the England hierarchy and its approach to squad-building ahead of the big tournament, especially as the inside centre role has given successive coaches such unmitigated grief since Will Greenwood packed it in more than a decade ago.
As things stand, Lancaster intends to cut his squad by eight or nine players on 7 August following this week’s training at the team base just outside Bagshot. Should Twelvetrees bite the dust, he will, to a significant degree, have only himself to blame: the statistics tell us that England score more tries more often when the Gloucester captain is on the field, but his error count can be on the high side of stratospheric.
However, the fault is not his alone. He was badly mishandled during last summer’s tour of New Zealand – thrown in against the world champions in Dunedin after a six-week injury lay-off, he was then chucked straight back out again largely on the basis of one dodgy offload – and without Eastmond to offer some creativity in the No 12 position, England will be horribly predictable in the very area where Australia, one of the countries blocking their route to the knock-out stage, are at their most inventive and threatening.
As one very senior coach said a couple of days ago: “People who try things make mistakes. That’s the price you pay for a footballing 12. The only midfielders with a zero error-count are the ones who don’t even attempt to do something with the ball.”
The midfield conundrum has been so unfathomable for so long, it is unsurprising that the other delicate decisions facing Lancaster are causing less consternation. Some calls will be easier than others: for instance, the Wasps prop Matt Mullan is among those expected to be given his cards – England are picking from serious strength on both sides of the scrum, to the extent that the Lions loose-head specialist Alex Corbisiero cannot be sure of making the cut – while the Northampton scrum-half Lee Dickson and the Gloucester flanker Matt Kvesic are confidently said to occupy that grisly position between the pit and the pendulum.
But the wing cull will be painful indeed – it seems three of Chris Ashton, Jonny May, Semesa Rokoduguni and Marland Yarde will hit the buffers at some point between now and the end of the month – and there are anxious moments ahead for the hookers, the locks and players as celebrated, in their different ways, as the celebrity outside-half Danny Cipriani and the old-school No 8 Nick Easter.
Happily, some of the mist will have cleared by late 7 August. As for the midfield, Lancaster and his advisers remain lost in the fog.
The final cut: Key England decisions
It will be astonishing if either of the two senior full-backs, Mike Brown and Alex Goode, miss out, so the wings will bear the brunt of the pain. Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell are the incumbents, so Chris Ashton, Jonny May, Semesa Rokoduguni and Marland Yarde are probably chasing a single place.
There is no chance of bad news for the centres Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph or the outside-halves George Ford and Owen Farrell. Luther Burrell has a decent chance of clinging on, but Danny Cipriani is holding his breath – not just regarding selection, but for news from police investigating an alleged drink-driving offence.
England will need three No 9s at the World Cup and there are four in the frame – five, if Joe Simpson of Wasps is rewarded for his stellar late-season form with a late call-up after injury. The smart money is on Ben Youngs, Richard Wigglesworth and Danny Care making the cut.
If the newcomer Kieran Brookes secures a propping place, either Alex Corbisiero or David Wilson will ultimately miss out. At hooker, only Tom Youngs is certain of a slot. As for the locks, Dave Attwood, George Kruis and Geoff Parling are chasing two places alongside Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes.
Matt Kvesic, the one dyed-in-the-wool breakaway in the squad, is thought to be struggling for survival, but the uncapped Calum Clark has a growing band of supporters. Much depends on the No 8 Ben Morgan’s recovery from a serious leg injury. A full recovery will end Nick Easter’s interest.
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