Brian Ashton has just a few weeks remaining in which to narrow down his Rugby World Cup squad. Having already released six players – Olly Morgan, Fraser Waters, Magnus Lund, Shane Geraghty, Louis Deacon and Andy Hazell – the England head coach must trim the squad from 40 to 30 by 15th August.
Between now and then, England will play two warm-up matches, one against Wales on August 4th and another against France the following Saturday. There is a third on August 18th, but by then, the final World Cup party will have been declared.
It was expected that another cut would have been made by now, but Ashton appears to be hedging his bets. Several of the forty remaining players are still battling back from injury, and Ashton is giving them the maximum time available to recover.
Dan Ward-Smith is among them – a physical Number 8 with the turn of speed of a full-back and a very exciting prospect. However, he has no international experience, and is still in contention only by virtue of his superlative form for Bristol last Autumn. Charlie Hodgson is another struggling for fitness with a knee injury, while Mike Tindall is still recovering from a broken leg. What is Ashton aiming to achieve by keeping them – and everyone else in the squad – hanging on?
Ashton seems to have two options over the coming weeks. The first is to cross his fingers, hope and pray that his nursery of injured players can recover in time, play some part in the first two warm-up matches, and then decide whether they are good enough to make the final cut.
The other is to cut his losses now, whittle down the squad further and name his first-choice team for all three games, giving them the opportunity to play together and gel as a unit in the short space of time they have left.
Hope is not a management tool – Ashton should opt for the latter. As far as Ward-Smith is concerned, it is a big gamble but he may be worth waiting for – the others are not. If Ashton gives them all a run out over the next few weekends, using substitutes in the manner of Sven Goran Eriksson, England will hardly be further forward by the time the World Cup begins. The players will not have been able to learn from playing with each other, and will have to quickly settle as a team during the first few group matches – against USA, erm South Africa and er Samoa. Surely that is not a sensible strategy.
England are leaving it late to build a credible defence of their World Cup title, but now is the time for Ashton to put together his starting team and give them match practice. It is not the time to be hoping that a number of players recover in time, and if they do, hoping they are good enough to play for England.
By James Hutchison