Begrudging the England Elite


Amid much debate amongst supporters and rugby commentators alike, the England Elite squad for the QBE Autumn Internationals was finalised last Thursday – and most expected a few more changes than those announced.

Injuries ruled out Rob Webber, Ben Foden, Tom Croft and Alex Corbisiero. How many changes did Stuart Lancaster make to July’s squad? Four – to replace these four individuals. No other selections were dictated by the first nine rounds of matches this season. Welcome to Elite England.

The reality is that the remaining players were guaranteed to be selected for the Autumn Internationals when the previous squad was announced in July, because of the agreement between the RFU and Premier Rugby.

If Lancaster, who had no input in dictating the terms of the eight year squad agreement, is forced to rely on injuries and retirements (in September David Wilson replaced the retired Matt Stevens) to tinker with his autumn squad, it does not give much room for manoeuvre, if he has made errors in the July selection.

For the players chosen in July’s squad the situation is too comfortable for a set of top athletes. Play poorly at the start of the season and you might not make the test team but your squad place is guaranteed.

It seems surprising that no English players outside of July’s squad have performed well enough in recent Premiership and European matches to justify promotion from the Saxons squad, or even outside, to the Elite group.

The lack of squad movement is not creating the ultimate competitive environment. For all the best will in the world, even if the players selected are rested before test matches and have two weeks of preparation in Camp England, to learn Farrell’s defence structure, Catt’s attacking moves, Rowntree’s forward play and absorb Lancaster’s motivational speeches, if they are not the best English players available then the squad format is far less likely to breed a culture of success.

You have to feel sorry for certain omitted players. In particular, Freddie Burns is England’s form fly-half and many ex-players have joined in the nationwide calls for him to finally be given an opportunity at Twickenham, on the international stage.

If Toby Flood and Owen Farrell do not perform well in the autumn then, bar injury (and let’s hope this is not the case), Burns will have to wait until the Six Nations at the very earliest for a first cap.

And what about Christian Wade and Kyle Eastmond? Wade perhaps needs to be wrapped in cotton wool as it was evident on the tour of South Africa, where he played in two midweek matches, that his defence must improve. But he is undoubtedly one of England’s most exciting prospects.

Likewise, Eastmond has a similar air of Jason Robinson about him. The ex-Wigan star had only played a handful of Premiership matches before his England debut. Judging on recent performances for Bath, Eastmond, formerly of St Helens, is equally as capable of making the step up.

Another issue is the Top 14 contingent. Whilst many of us remain baffled by the protectionism-like stance, Stuart Lancaster is toeing the RFU line admirably, whilst other nations have named France-based players in their squads

But most England supporters continue to scratch their heads at the absence of Andrew Sheridan and Steffon Armitage. Injury free Sheridan, 32, is keeping Gethin Jenkins out of the Toulon team yet Lancaster has chosen the inexperienced duo of Joe Marler, 22, and the uncapped Marko Vunipola, 21, at loosehead. Both fantastic prospects but England could do with an old head against the southern hemisphere’s finest.

And Armitage has been in sensational form ever since he moved to France in 2011, and recently outplayed the bookies’ favourite to captain the Lions next summer, Sam Warburton, in Toulon’s Heineken Cup away win against the Cardiff Blues.

If England do not beat Fiji and Australia, and take the scalp of South Africa (no victory over SA since 2006) or New Zealand (no victory over NZ since 2003) this autumn, many will point to the failings of the Elite England squad format. Progress is not winning every other game, especially when the matches are all played at Twickenham.

Failing this, call ups, at least, for Burns and the Toulon cavalry might put a smile back on the faces of England supporters, who, agreements and politics aside, simply want the best English players to be picked by Stuart Lancaster.

By Alastair Pickering @AMP_Rugby

37 thoughts on “Begrudging the England Elite

  1. Lays out the problems quite clearly.

    Come on Rob Andrew – what are you doing? Sort it out (or alternatively pass the buck and say it is nothing to do with you).

    Seriously though the RFU (or ERFU Blighty) need to keep things moving forward. There is nothing wrong with tweaking an agreement already in place (or at least trying to). How about a modest 4 or 5 players allowed to be changed because of loss of form or great play between squad announcements. Surely that wouldn’t inconvenience the clubs too much and would help England.

    As for France, that is up to the players who go there to negotiate the release terms in their contract. I have some sympathy for the RFU on this one as they have no real way of negotiating with the French clubs. The English ones want RFU money and therefore have to negotiate (I think?).

    1. Sorry Brighty, just realised I typoed your name. I guess an obvious mistake given that I was talking about England, but not welcome I’m sure!

      1. No worries, I just thought it was some England/Britain/Blighty reference I didn’t understand. I know you English interchange the words Britain/England at will as it is all the same thing to you :-)

  2. I completely agree with the players that are in form finding a way into the squad. This has to be worked out! It makes no sense to go into the Autumn with the squad that you picked in July!

    And in terms of France based players, I can not make up my mind. On one hand, yes they are playing well enough so should be considered. On the other hand, in going over to France, they knew they were risking their England careers so can not complain? And surely we want the players in the England squad who would do anything to be there (and by anything all we ask if play your rugby in the AP).

    As I said, I am still undecided on this one.

    1. I agree you want the players who are willing to give everything. However sometimes it takes a move abroad to get a career back to the level of international. Steffon Armitage’s chances of playing for England may have been worse by staying here because he may not have ever reached the level he is in France.

  3. How long does the EPS agreement last? I would think that while the current system is flawed, it is ultimately much better than before it was in place. One would think that when it comes to put in place a new agreement that there can be some tweaks to the format which could prove more beneficial all round.

    Agree totally about the points re the French based players. You know the rules when you look across the channel, so you can’t complain when you get overlooked as a result.

    1. I dont think its the players based accross the channel that feel agreived (they all seem to be acepting graciously). Its the fans that want the best players selected.

      One thing i don’t get is that Lancaster picked Palmer last 6N when he was playing in france when we had loads of 2nd rows. It was hardly “exceptional circumstances”. I think its far more exceptional when a player gets voted player of the top 14.

  4. Can you clarify, is it genuinely the legal case that Lancaster’s hands were tied in terms of calling up players like Burns, or does it just look like that because he didn’t call him up?

    1. I thought that Lancaster could select any squad he wished, but only those in the EPS would have to be released by their club early (an be bound by the limits on game time for the clubs over the year)?

  5. England should pick the best players end of story – Lancaster’s reluctance to consider the French based players is ridiculous!

    1. I don’t think I’d be so harsh. This week the bulk of the Wales squad are off to a training camp prior to the AIs. They will not be joined by the non-Welsh based players as there is no agreement in place for them to do so. So I would imagine the coach wants to try and rely on the players he knows he can call up when he wants, not at the whims of their French employers.

      For the long term it’s obvious that the French game is dwarfing all others in terms of money – yes, England could compete on financial terms with say 2 clubs but they could not create an entire league so awash with money. So similar to Wales I assume the RFU stance is to try and tempt English players to stay in England even though the salaries are lower … pick one French based player and the rest of them may also think they can go to France and it not make any difference to their international selection. For the long term having all of your best players leave the country will relegate your domestic league to 2nd division – look at Brazil in the footie, or Germany, etc.

    2. A good team is so much more than the sum of its parts. I think the whole culture thing is really important to SL, and if you cant participate fully in the extra training sessions and team bonding stuff then maybe SL feels that would be detrimental to the team spirit. It’s probably why Easter isn’t getting a look in, not because of his age but because he’s a big mouth who is not conducive to a positive environment.

      Plus as good as Armitage has been playing, he always has performed well club level even at Irish, there’s no certainty he will transfer it to the international arena and I think England have been doing pretty well at the breakdown even without an out and out 7. Robshaw, Cole and Barrit one quite a few turnovers over the summer and 6n.

  6. SL CAN select who he likes under IRB rules making this arrangement no less flexible than what we had before. What the EPS allows is extra access over key players, no different to other countries who centrally contract some players for the year but can pick others if need be. It also gives better access to the saxons too so that is 64 players yo chose from. Changes can be made in Jan ahead of 6N to account for form. No system is perfect but atleast this encourages some consistency of selection unlike in the fear of being dropped after one poor match as under Robinson. Clubs are rewarded for producing England players too. Don’t blame the system for Burns absence. If SL wanted him he could pick him either outside the EPS or for any one of the above noted injuries (fwds can replace backs and vice versa).

    1. Are you saying it is right to encourage consistency of selection through limiting choice and freedom of the coach by making it easier for him to have access to a pre-selected set of players? I just want to understand what you mean – if you do mean that then I could not disagree more. Consistency of selection is the choice of the coach. If Robinson didn’t do it you don’t fix that by tying his hands, you either back his choice or sack him. You’ll be advocating the return to blazered selection committees next.

      1. Brighty, this would be so much easier to explain over a pint in person! I take your point that Coaches should hold firm and have the courage of their convictions, but in the real world of high pressure international sport emotion takes over even the most experienced of coaches.

        England (& France) have such a wealth of players to choose from and when results go against a team, you have the media and fans demanding change and a manager fearing losing his job the default reaction is to change the team or elements of it – logic and strategy is replaced by knee jerk reaction and a one game horizon.

        What I like about the EPS is that it almost replicates the club environment that most coaches will be used to. You pick a squad for the season, with the best players available to implement your strategy. EPS has added flexibility to replace any injuries, and a January transfer window to reward form players. I think it is a useful check and balance for coaches, who are not robots and immune to emotional decisions, and it provides a good framework for the player to develop their understanding with players they don’t regularly play with. It is effectively the same model of central contracts used by the southern hemisphere teams over the years. The coach is in no way limited in who he picks, he is free to plunder the saxons or those outside the EPS completely but I think to do that would require exceptional circumstances and in itself would require the coach to take a step back and think about the consequences of passing over players that only a few months previously he judged to be the best in their position.

        Ultimately the coach picks the eps, so this in no way ties his hands but gives him a good framework and structure to work within. I don’t see where your blazer’s comments come from?

        1. Benjit, thanks for the elaboration. I understand you better now. The blazer comment was because it sounded like you were more strongly advocating taking the selection process partly out of the coaches hands.

          I agree with your assessment of the problem – coaches under a lot of pressure can make knee jerk reactions. Where we disagree is on the solution – if the EPS system can help these coaches avoid doing it then I think it is glossing over their deficiencies as a coach. Take Gatland as an example, I cannot think of a single instance where he gave a fig what fans/media/bosses thought. He picked Tom Prydie (to ensure he stayed Welsh qualified I think), he publicly berated Ryan Jones after the Fiji debacle, he sticks with Priestland through thick and thin (so far…). I prefer this – we get the full benefit of Gatland’s ability to do the job. I prefer that if he starts displaying signs of being fickle then we sack him, not interfere in the selection process, however lightly or indirectly.

          1. But I would argue (and I’m paying devil’s advocate a little) that Gatland/ wales are working within a framework too, just a different structure to the EPS. Wales have 4 regions (plus a smattering of exiles) to choose from, therefore Gatland is limited in his selections to an extent. who else could he have picked over Priestland, realistically? He had to move on from Jones, Hook was not playing 10 regularly last season (or had he already moved?) and Biggar was not in great form.

            I think Gatland is consistent because he has little choice to make in key positions – Adam Jones, Gethin, Phillips, and Lydiate and others.

            However where i do give Gatland credit is in identifying and backing youth – Cuthbert, Halfpenny, North, Warburton. BUT he’s not yet had a significant set back – what if Warburton had bombed – would he have stuck with him or rolled out Williams, would he have dropped Preistland if another 10 had been in form? I suspect he would have – he is that type of character, plus in having delivered 2 grand slams he is virtually untouchable now!

            I think the regional system does help the cream rise to the top more effectively than the club systems of England and France, and thus makes selection less of an issue. SL still has tough decisions to make the EPS doesn’t abdicate that, it just allows the coach a bit of breathing space to allow his plans to bear fruit. No it’s not perfect but it is SO much better than what we had before.

  7. I disagree with the thoughts here, on the one hand you want Burns, Wade and Eastmond to be selected because they have had a handful of good games this season, but on the other you want Vuniploa not involved so that Sheridan, (old and injury prone unlikely to be playing come 2015) can bring his experience to the squad.

    Of course any squad selection will have some guys who have played well to miss out,and many selectors will disagree – Joe Gray never misses a tackle or a lineout for Quins(the latter I always thought the primary job of a hooker) not involved even though he by far outplayed Youngs at Welford road – so that we can blood a centre who cant throw into the mix.

    Form is obviously important, but for me if these guys play well for the next 4 months for their club then we can look at them in the 6 Nations, your form in the first 6 or 7 games is not quite enough. Whilst we could all name people who should be in the squad there aren’t many we could name who shouldnt be in the squad -(do you get rid of Farell or Flood for Burns?) so we need to give the guys who have been in the Elite squad for the last tour a bit of time or the England team will be different every week.

    that said…totally agree about Armitage…he left England for the money..but he is the best English openside (Robshaw still skipper, but at 6 for me)…

    1. Re: Joe Gray

      Yes his lineout throwing is superb, and you are correct that is a key part of a hooker’s role. However, it is just part of it.
      And IMO (and many others) it was in fact Gray that was “far outplayed” in every other facet of the game. Youngs’ work rate is unrivalled in the premiership, not only that, but his contributions are effective.
      This is not NFL, players are not so specialized that they have one primary duty that has to be fulfilled regardless of their game as a whole.

      I’m not having a go at Gray btw! He should/will take his place in the England squad when he is fit, you would think.

  8. In relation to your comments on Joe Gray, he is injured and has been for a couple weeks and that’s why he isn’t selected.

  9. Tom I disagree about Gray vs Youngs in the recent game at Welford road, Gray carried more often and more effectively than him, even though every talks about Youngs’ ball carrying. Gray also made more tackles, I appreciate that there is more to the role than just throwing in, but when England need a cruical lineout to win a game and/or save a game Youngs is very unreliable….

    I rate Youngs as a player, so my only real reason for the response is in that game at Welford road, I’m not sure what facet Youngs excelled in…even a hardened leicester fan would struggle to big him up on that days performance.. it was a big game and it was beyong him at this stage of his career, he hardly carried and when he did he didnt make the impact we’ve seen before, he barely tackled, the scrum was okay – but that might be more down to Dan Cole than anyone else -world class tight head- and his lineouts were iffy..again, as they were when they lost at kingsholm saturday. so whilst i agree that it isnt the only part of a players game it is an important…

    the trend nowadays is to pick 9’s who cant pass but are quick, 10’s who stand out by making breaks for themselves instead of putting others into space and controlling the game, props who cant scrummage but can ball carry….I would like the England team to full of the very best specialists…then with all of the playing resoucres available hope that among them there are some x factor players

    1. I completely disagree with you regarding Youngs’ performance. I also don’t quite trust the stats, because I was counting the tackles, and the number I counted was far (multiple times) higher than the number put forth by the broadcaster (which was something pitiful like 3).

      But I completely agree with you about not picking players for unnecessary skills.
      Tom Croft and Owen Farrell are perfect example of this. Aside from Croft’s lineout and his pace, and Owen’s place kicking, neither are good enough based on their work around the park, for differing reasons.

      I don’t see Youngs as one of those players though, assuming he can cut out the mistakes in the lineout he will be a very, very good player. In fact, if anything, I see Gray as the equivalent of a 10 that is chosen solely for goal kicking. Did you watch the midweek games on the SA tour.
      Would be interested to hear what your opinions are on that, considering the two hookers were Youngs and Gray.

  10. Just trying to remember – didn’t Lancaster originally say that he would pick players on form and not on how old or young they were. I might be wrong – anyone got a better memory than me. If it was right and if the comments above are correct then he seems to have changed his tune.

    1. I think that was to make it clear that he wanted to bring in new young players, rather than saying he wouldn’t exclude older ones.

    2. Yes but this squad was chosen at the end of last season, so for the most part these were the form players. Certainly there is a case to say that Waldrom, Allen, JTH and others are not currently the form players for their position, but let’s see who is changed in January. As they say form is temporary, but class is permanent. Lets see if Wade, Varndell, Burns et al can maintain their good form until Christmas and prove that it is not just a flash in the pan. for instance, despite the form of Brown last year I personally wouldn’t have moved or dropped Foden – I think he is class and rarely has a bad game for England. Greenwood was another, no matter how he played for his club – you’d still pick him for England because he was so good.

  11. In all fairness on this whole “outplayed Sam Warburton” point, Jordi Murphy on his debut for Leinster outplayed Warburton. He simply does not bring the same level of intensity at club level.

    1. A very good question. Armitage maybe (Steffon), but Sheridan? Why would anybody feel we need a player who will get injured in the first half, as he has in most of his recent games for England. No point in having him in the squad at 32. Marler, Vunipola, and Mullan are all perfectly capable of filling the void given game time at this level.

  12. Am not sure about those people referring to Burns as a flash in the pan (or even Wade come to think of it – not that I think that he is ready for England), he is a young player who has developed pretty steadily without being a one or two game wonder (a la Cipriani) and then had everyone name him saviour. He has been pretty steady for the last season and a half.

    1. I began to agree with you until you added that Cipriani was a flash in the pan.

      Wasps fans will remember Cipriani as much more than that. He played considerably well for a very long period. He developed at full back, was part of winning Heineken cup side in that position before playing quite incredibly at fly half before his injury to his ankle (a real bad one I must add).

      Since his injury he has never been the same player; the reason for this could be one of many. Mainly he has acted like a fool off the pitch.

      I still believe he will be a very good player.

      1. Fair comment. I was really thinking about recent Cipriani history. Am not convinced that he will be an England player again though.

  13. Great on earth did Phil Dowson and Farrel get a place only Lancaster and Farell senior can answer..Burns,Steffon,Dilon Armitage,Cipriani even Exeter ascot should be given a look in…lets hope that England loos and Lancaster will come in to his Senses..I think Robshaw is highly over rated.England lack a quality openside and good allround center…

    1. Disagree with much of what you’ve said. Farrell deserves to be in the squad but only as no 3 FH. Cipriani shuldn’t be within 100 miles of the squad. Arscott is playing well but probably Saxons at best. Steffon Armitage and Burns probably everyone except Lancaster thinks should be in the squad. Having not really liked Robshaw early on, I have grown to respect his play and leadership immensely. Does a huge amount of hard graft, which makes the players around him better. However whether he is a 6 or a 7 is indeed a matter of opinion. Agree with your other points.

      1. I like Arscott but he’s well behind Brown, Goode and Foden in the fullback cue

        Like many others, I’ve always thought Robshaw was a better blind-side than open, however he seems intent on proving all of us wrong. I believe he was leading the way in turnovers over the summer before getting injured and Quins hardly seem to suffer with him playing open.

        I’d be interested to see Wood and Robshaw playing on either side as they can both turn ball over, are both good in the loose and both have a great work rate

  14. Alistair-great article. Just brings me back to my argument about the management’s pragmatic approach. In business one looks to success and tries to emulate it. Why aren’t we looking to adapt and change .Look at The All blacks set up.Why don’t we look to emulate their structure. We seem in this country so tied up in the past.With this summer’s Olympic success I had hoped we’d adopt the attitude of “winning is good,success is good,we deserve it,being first is our right full place”. If you keep doing what you are doing,you will keep getting what you are getting

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