England’s forgotten men: time to recall Armitage and Haskell?


First up, let me start by saying this is not a criticism of Stuart Lancaster or that the direction that England are moving in as a team. The new cultures and philosophies implemented by Lancaster have helped turn England from perennial underachievers into a good side, who are developing towards being a very good side. The goal should surely be higher than that though, and I question whether the current formation of England’s back row can achieve those lofty aspirations.

Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola form a very competent back row, one that many international sides would love to have, but I don’t think it has the balance that some would have you believe. I should have perhaps refaced that statement by acknowledging that I’m of the school of thought that a back row should consist of a workhorse tackler, a fleet jackal and a powerful carrier, and for me England don’t currently have that.

Sure, be flexible for world class talents, but at the moment England are relying on the likes of Joe Launchbury and Dan Cole to make the difference for them at the breakdown, and that’s a risky scenario heading towards a World Cup. Robshaw is an exquisite player and captain, but he is not a natural seven, illustrated by the fact he regularly arrives first at the breakdown for England, but after getting his hands on the ball, often struggles to stay on his feet when the opposition arrives.

Enter, stage right, Steffon Armitage. The former London Irish man was at his sensational best for Toulon against Leinster, and had the destructive force of a tornado at the breakdown. I’ve called Armitage the best breakdown forward in the northern hemisphere for some time now, but with Richie McCaw on the decline, David Pocock struggling to stay fit, and Michael Hooper in solid, if not spectacular form, I’d go as far to say there’s no one better in the world than him right now.

Criticisms that he lacks the work rate for international rugby are tired, and surely can’t be being made by anyone who has watched him develop as a player over the last few years, whilst suggestions he simply benefits from playing with a team of ‘Galacticos’ in Toulon are also exaggerated, and I’d suggest it’s his hard graft and technique at the breakdown which allow those other stars to shine so brightly. We seem to debate what Armitage could bring to the England team after every Heineken Cup game involving Toulon, but the answer? A hell of a lot.

Enter, stage left, James Haskell. If Armitage is on form the best breakdown forward in the world, then a very strong case can be made that Haskell the best all-round back row in the Aviva Premiership on current form too. London Wasps’ form has taken a significant dip over the last couple of months, but one player in particular has continued to impress, and if it were not for the heroics of Haskell in some of Wasps’ recent games, the score lines could have been far worse for the High Wycombe-based outfit.

The talented back row is playing some of the best rugby of his career, and is well and truly living up to the potential he had when he first burst onto the scene 10 years ago. His versatility would be a huge positive for England, as he can play anywhere in the back row, although is arguably most proficient on the flanks, and he would also add a wealth of experience to a young England team, not least so having played Super Rugby in New Zealand for the Highlanders.

I’m not advocating dropping anyone from England’s current starting back row, but with a home World Cup looming on the horizon, both Armitage and Haskell can add something to the squad which it is currently lacking, and would, for my money, improve England’s chances of winning the tournament dramatically. On club form, you’d be tough pressed to find two more impressive back rows in world rugby right now, and places on England’s tour to New Zealand should be the reward.

I understand Lancaster’s unwillingness to pick a foreign-based player, thus creating a precedent for it in the future, but when it’s a truly world class talent like Armitage, you really can’t afford not to. If Toulon fail to make the Top 14 final, Lancaster must consider bending the rules for Armitage, especially with England potentially bereft of Wood and Vunipola in the first test, if, as the table predicts, Saracens and Northampton are contending for the Premiership trophy. Haskell’s performances meanwhile surely put him above both Tom Johnson and Matt Kvesic in the England pecking order, and make him a prime candidate for at least a spot on the bench in New Zealand this summer.

Both of these players need to be given second chances on the international scene, and if they can replicate their club form on the biggest stage, then England have a truly ferocious back row building for the World Cup. In the run up to the 2003 World Cup, England’s back row was essentially unattainable for the likes of Joe Worsley and Lewis Moody, such was the proficiency and balance that Messrs Hill, Back and Dallaglio offered.

England aren’t there at the moment, and with players likely to be missing at least the first test in New Zealand due to club commitments, this is an opportunity for Lancaster to roll the dice. It’s a low risk and extremely high reward scenario.

I’ll leave you, and Mr Lancaster (on the slim chance he is reading this), with some words of wisdom from one of the most venerable sources I’ve known in my life;

“He who dares, wins.”

by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

24 thoughts on “England’s forgotten men: time to recall Armitage and Haskell?

  1. Rugby has moved on and the idea of a backrow that you outline was relevant about 25 years ago, but not anymore. The 7 doesn’t need to be a specialist ball poacher anymore because the whole team has to be adept at getting in over the ball and stealing – with the pace of the game you can’t expect one guy to be at every breakdown. I’d say that the current backrow of Wood, Robshaw and Vunipola is very well balanced and the best that England currently has.

    By all means recall Haskell to the squad for the world cup if his form merits it, but I think he falls in to the same category as players like Easter and Strettle – those who have had more than enough chances for England and always failed to produce the goods when it mattered on the international stage.

    With Armitage on the other hand, he shouldn’t be recalled unless he comes back to England. We don’t need him that desperately, and selecting him would be entirely against the stated ethos of the current England team – Armitage has made his choice in the full knowledge that staying in France would affect his chances of England selection and he doesn’t seem to mind. Lancaster should stick to his guns and not pick somebody who is clearly not bothered enough about playing for England to make the effort – if he wanted it, I’m sure that most premiership sides would happily take him in on a good salary. Let’s be realistic – he’s not that much of a superstar that England can’t get by without him.

    1. I agree strongly with Matt H. What if your poacher 7 has to take a carry? Our your tackler is first man to the breakdown? You need well-rounded skillsets in all your players, especially your back row.

      I also agree that Haskell is worth a recall. He can play at 6 with Robshaw at 7 and Morgan at 8 in the first test, and then shuffle round or cover the bench when Wood and Vunipola return. Getting Haskell back involved with England would give us a strong, experienced option which we need as Kvesic has failed to kick on with Gloucester and Johnson remains, in my opinion, a lesser player than Haskell.

      The Armitage one is a hundred times more complicated, what is undeniable though is that he has been playing sensationally for a long while. I think a lot of it depends on Armitage himself. If he can strike a deal with Toulon to make him available for all England dates and commit as an England player first and a Toulon player second, then he can be recalled. If he decides to prioritise Toulon, and no-one could blame him for that considering how he’s been ignored by England in the past, then having him fly in when available will be more disruptive and contrary to what Lancaster is trying to build.

      If I were Lancaster I would be trying to arrange a sitdown with him as soon as possible to find out what Steffon Armitage wants and values. Without knowing that, no-one can really say whether or not he should be recalled.

  2. Haskell should absolutely be in. I would say though, was he ever dropped? He played in the 2013 6 nations, then got injured and didn’t come back until the AIs.

    When the 6 nations come around he still wasn’t in full form having been out for 6 months.

    I’m sure he will go to NZ, he is a top player, and a great option for SL moving forward.

    As stated on here recently, I would definitely not pick Armitage. To me, the conversation about his talents are currently irrelevant unless he moves back to England. If SL wants to sit down with him and see how he feels, and what he wants. Great. If that leads to him returning to England, even better. BUT, until that happens (Armitage playing in England that is), the he absolutely must not get picked.

    If he does, then what happens in 12 months time when Tuilagi, Vunipola or Farrell get their head turns by French clubs? Can SL then drop them from the squad? He’d essentially be opening a whole issue that he really does not want.

  3. Cannot agree more with the previous two comments.

    Haskell would be a good option to take to New Zealand, even if you aren’t playing him, his experience internationally and in NZ would be invaluable to a side who haven’t played in New Zealand.

    Johnson isn’t quite there, Kvesic hasn’t pushed on to the level people expected. There are young players who could come in too.

  4. I’d be happy with Haskell’s inclusion from now until 2015, but after that you’d want younger players brought in as it’s unlikely Haskell would be around for 2019 (He would be 34).

    With Armitage, England have to stay strong on the rule of playing in England. He’s really good and I’m sure England would be better for having him, but he is the only player that this applies to currently. If exceptions are made, the temptation for other players would be too great.

  5. What is very clear to me is that Haskell and Armitage, are both much improved players since they last played for England.

    Armitage appears far more robust – particularly when carrying the ball – but appears to have none of his ability on the ground. Haskell, conversely, appears to be playing a far more thoughtful game than he displayed previously, and ironically appears to have added a better “jackalling” aspect to his previously muscular game.

    very difficult for all the reasons above to include Armitage. Well deserved recall in line for Haskell I think.

    Interestingly, one of this papers this morning made passing reference to Armitage being known to have a “complicated character”. Whatever that means.

    Whether there is any substance to that or not, I have no idea, but there is no doubt that “character” is an important part of the current England set-up.

  6. Haskell, big thumbs up, definite yes. When he was fully fit in the 2012 summer tour he added to the back row when Robshaw was injured for the 3rd test. Although Morgan did pretty well (particularly off the bench) in the 6N it looked like he remained on the bus at the weekend. With Vunipola’s conditioning improving over time I would prefer Has on the bench to Morgan for NZ.

    Armitage, sadly no-can-do. The potential short term up side of improving the England back row (potential because we’ve not seen him play international level) is massively outweighed by the downside of creating a precedent and risking an exodus of top English talent. I wish they had offered an olive branch in 2012, we’ll give you a go if you commit to coming back when your contract is up, but it didn’t happen and he’s subsequently agreed a new deal out there.

  7. Great article and some great debate to match. I’d like to say that whilst you offer a good argument for the inclusion of both players to the England squad, I can only really agree with the points you make about Haskell and not Armitage.

    Haskell has really knuckled down recently and worked hard to add more intelligence to his game, and more skills to complement his new found approach. For me he is a must for the first New Zealand test (either as a starter or bench option) simply because of his great current form, better developed game, and test experience.

    Armitage however is just a moot point until he moves back to England. Sure it would undeniably be fantastic to have him as an option for England, but including him now would ruin the culture and ethos Stuart Lancaster has worked so hard to create regarding rewarding home soil players .

    Also I disagree with your definition of an international back row. I’d be worried if you were a coach taking that line of thinking, because its a rigid way of looking at the game of rugby by pigeon holing positions in a set manner. ‘You play what you see in front of you’ – one of the first lessons in Rugby.

  8. You state that criticisms that Armitage lacks the work rate for international rugby are “tired”. Unfortunately there’s no way of knowing this without him actually playing some international rugby.

    After all, Bastereaud looked superb on the weekend. But as we all know, he can’t really cut it at international level

    For Lancaster to break his rule about no overseas players and drop either of his most consistent players in Wood and Robshaw (who I’d argue are the heartbeat of this England team) in order to take a chance on a guy who may or may not make the grade would be utter insanity.

    Haskell on the other hand is far less of a risk and I am sure he features in Lancaster’s plans in some way.

  9. Haskell has definitely warranted a spot on the NZ tour. He wasn’t injured after the 2013 6 nations however, he underwent elective surgery on his knees, which have been problematic for years. He says he feels 23 again, and his performances perhaps reflect that. 34 isn’t out of the running either (talking about 2019) especially for someone who looks after their body as well as Haskell.

    Armitage chose Toulon over England. His contract was at an end this season, he was clearly capable of breaking into the England squad if he came to England. He chose to extend with Toulon. I’ve no problem with someone thinking of the future and taking the cash, especially in a contact sport, but I do think England need to stick with the “Only in England” policy.

  10. Haskell should surely be pushing for an EPS spot – flanker is one of the few positions where we lack depth.
    Armitage however is a very different kettle of fish. The minute we start picking players that play outside England is the minute when our top England players decide that they can have their cake and eat it and move to France themselves. It’s a slippery slope, so I don’t care if he’s twice as good as Richie McCaw, if he doesn’t play in England he doesn’t play for England. I’m sure he’d walk into the squad (over Kvesic or Johnson – there’s no doubt) if he played over here, but picking him whilst he’s at Toulon could potentially do irreparable damage to the Premiership.

  11. I completely agree with the comments above.

    I think another problem is that Toulon would probably prevent Armitage from playing for England. Toulon isn’t exactly friendly to international rugby (club first attitude) and looking at their roster, they have surprising little depth at 7. They would be in a bad position if Armitage was not available during the international periods. Plus, Armitage offers Toulon exactly what it wants, a international level talent who doesn’t play internationally. I bet they will do what ever they can to keep it that way.

  12. To play Devil’s Advocate, what of England’s other forgotten man? Danny Cipriani has just been named player of the month for March.

    With Farrell (and possibly Ford) likely to miss out on the first test and Burns struggling to get a game for his club, is the door open for Danny Cipriani?

  13. What have Wood and Robshaw done wrong? Or Launchbury for that matter?
    Peter O’Mahony and said baby faced lock topped the turnover charts this 6N, neither of which are 7s. I honestly thought the belief that a back row needed a true 7 had been alleviated around here.
    I do agree on Haskell, he’s our closest player to Sean O’Brien. A one man back row that is can tackle, jackel and carry. Probably our best bench option if you ask me and a better option than either Johnson or Kvesic to partner Croft when he returns to fitness. Armitage is quite similar in his versatility but is definitely more suited at 7. But as long as he stays in France; it’s tough luck. Lancaster’s policy has done a fine job of stemming the rot of players moving abroad. Also, we have no idea if he’ll even be able to transfer his club form into international.

    1. I don’t think the debate is about ousting players that have performed badly, or am I missing something?

      The point here is do we select two players who have performed very well.

      We should always be looking at who is performing well currently, and who can come in to challenge squad; this is international sport.

  14. Ever so slightly off topic, but a question I’d like peoples thoughts on.

    Given the clash between the first test with New Zealand and the Premiership final. If we ended up with a Saracens V Bath final, therefore ruling both Farrell and Ford out of the first test, would you take Flood?

    Given that the other options would be Freddie Burns who has a pretty poor season and only a handful of caps, Stephen Myler who is currently injured and has even less caps than Burns or Danny Cipriani who although in fine form hasn’t played for England for six years.

    Personally I would. Obviously Lancaster will have to name his squad before he actually knows which plays he won’t have available to him. (Does anybody know when he names that squad by the way?) And I don’t expect him to include Flood, but just wondered what everyone else thought?

    1. Nope. You could use the same logic to say that we have to take Steve Borthwick because there’s nobody else to run the lineout in Parling or Lawes’s absence…

      The objective of the NZ trip is likely to be the performance not the result – they’ll probably be targeting one win from three as a good outcome. The first test is the best chance for them to roll the dice with some new players as there won’t be much expectation of a win – putting Flood in to this situation (this is assuming that Leicester won’t make the final, which is a pretty big assumption given their history) would accomplish absolutely nothing as it would probably be the last game he ever played for England.

      So no thanks – let’s leave him at home and take a youngster – that said I’d expect that it will be George Ford as the final will probably be between two from Sarries, Saints and Tigers, if we’re being realistic.

      My guess would be he’ll probably take three 10s with him to NZ, with Farrell and Ford being two of them – the third is probably going to be either Myler or Cipriani, given the diabolical form that Burns has been in this season.

    2. I wouldn’t take Flood. What’s the point? He has no England future.

      I’d take Cipriani. Maybe Myler. But probably not even him. Let Farrell and Ford come back into selection for the next game. Twelvetrees will definitely be there, so he can provide back up at 10. Taking more than three 10s all the way down there seems a bit much.

      Baring in mind the players will fly down their after the final, they just won’t be available for the first test, taking four 10s seems over the top. Alex Goode will probably travel, as will Eastmond, so they are also stand ins at 10 if needed.

      Saying all this – I’d be very surprised if we saw Bath reach the final. I’d also be surprised if it wasn’t a Saracens vs Bath semi-final, therefore ruling out the chances of Ford and Farrell playing the final.

    3. Fly Half pecking order:

      Ford will probably be available to start, Cipriani or Myler to back him up. There’s no need to cap a guy who will definitely not be going to the RWC. Given Ford had to move away from Tigers as he wasn’t getting game time behind Flood, any decision to deny him international game time through picking Flood would be both poor and ironic!

      Burns going to Tigers is a concern, it doesn’t seem to be the right environment for a guy with his confidence shot, unlikely to be first choice as well. I would prefer to see him end up somewhere a little more nurturing if we are to make the most of his talents.

    4. The question was purely hypothetical and not one I expect to become reality as I would predict a Sarries v Saints final.

      However I don’t see the first test as a chance to roll the dice or experiment, unless it was Saints v Quins final (not because there would be any more players missing, but they would be the key ones) but that looks pretty unlikely. A final between any of Sarries, Saints, Tigers & Bath should see us be able to feel a competitive if unstrength side, but each position has adequate deputy (a Saints v Tigers final could be problematic as we’d lose both-currently- first choose Hookers, outside centres and 2nd & 3rd choice scrum halfs).

      Fly Half is the only position I’d worry about as you could argue that anyone other than Farrell is getting chuck in a the deep end. I mean as good as Ford is (and I think he’ll be the best fly half in the world in a few years time) he still has only two caps and what fourteen minutes(?) of international Rugby.

      That first test is going to be so important for confidence not only for the rest of the series but also for the next season just ahead of the world cup. To suffer three heavy defeats (which is possible if we go down heavily in the first test and don’t recover) would be a massive step backwards.

      I feel therefore it would be worth taking Flood just as a more experienced head and leader it doesn’t mean you have to play him, he still just be a good guy to have around, especially for the start of the tour as that is probably the most important time. And if he wasn’t moving to France he’d probably be in the squad anyway and likely to start the first test if Farrell wasn’t there!

      Having seen Catt and Rowntree’s comments it looks like they’re going the other way. Which is fine and will probably pay off win or lose in time for the 2019 World Cup i.e. 98 Tour of Hell. But for a World Cup in 18 months time, some how I don’t think so.

      But that’s just my thoughts. Either way whatever decision Lancaster and co. make I’ll be behind them 100% and hoping for a strong tour and impressive showing from the team.

  15. Graham Rowntree seems to have been quick to stamp out the clamour to recall Steffon. It smells like that there’s a vendetta here. It’s no wonder Steffon is not coming back to an English club if he’s just going to be ignored by the forwards coach.

  16. one key technical reason for Armitage ‘s absence is he isn’t a line out option. even Michael Hooper tapes up

  17. To claim you want the old school 6 7 8 back row then say Haskell can play anywhere across the back row?! Contradiction I think so second rows and props winning turn overs at ruck time is part of the modern game wingers and centres do it as well

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