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.