Wednesday’s Press Conference in Leeds was another right step forward for Lancaster’s England. The general consensus both on The Rugby Blog and across the social networks was that about 90% of the squad was spot on.
One issue that sticks out though is the lack of a ‘fetcher’. Wales have Sam Warburton, the Wallabies have David Pocock and the All Blacks boast Richie McCaw. France have Thierry Dusautoir, the IRB Player of the Year. Coincidentally, they happen to be the four sides who reached the semi-finals of the last Rugby World Cup. When Lewis Moody’s chances of selection began to deteriorate both through injury and form, those observing the other countries who were leaving them behind in the march for global glory started questioning where England’s version was going to come from.
Indeed the hope, and if we’re honest expectation, for this first EPS squad was that England would indicate who this star would be. Instead, England’s first squad effectively features five blindside flankers (Clark, Dowson, Croft, Robshaw, Wood) and one number 8 in Ben Morgan. Of the first five, Wood, Dowson and Clark have played out of position at openside flanker for their club Northampton Saints, and although clearly possessing the ability to turnover ball at the breakdown, it is not their speciality. Of the six, Wood, who could well be England’s captain, looks set for the 7 shirt. The emphasis therefore will not just be on him to lead a very fresh side into battle, but also to secure possession.
The role has developed dramatically since the 2009 Lions tour, when Heinrich Brüssow left the touring side scratching their heads, frustrated at their inability to secure possession at key moments because of the Springbok’s speed getting to his feet after a tackle, and getting his body over the ball. It has become a role that relies purely on the interpretation of the referee, more likely to favour the attacker, and on timing. Obstruct the ball too long, or fail to heed the referee’s orders to release, and you can cost your side a penalty. Get it right though, and judging by the list at the top of the page, you become rated as one of the best players in the world.
For this reason, Andy Saull’s inclusion in the Saxons squad, not the EPS, raises a few eyebrows. England for now do not have a single fetcher with experience of Test Rugby. What they do have, with Saull included, is a group of young candidates who can evolve into the roll. Wood is one, for time is on his side, but observing natural style, Luke Wallace of Harlequins, Jamie Gibson of London Irish and Matt Kvesic of Worcester are the leading candidates. Saull is the eldest at 23 (Kvesic is just 19), meaning that they have time to develop, yet none of them will be involved in the Six Nations. Stuart Lancaster, plus Nick Mallett from afar, will watch the Saxons matches against Ireland and Scotland with eager anticipation to see which of Saull or Gibson flourishes.
To contrast, Pocock made his senior Wallaby debut aged 20. Warburton was also 20, becoming Wales captain at 22. McCaw? 20. England don’t know if one of Saull/Gibson/Wallace/Kvesic will reach anywhere near that level in international rugby. But their exclusion means the answer will not come this February. If England want to become the best in the world again, they must follow the world’s lead.
by Ben Coles