Tom Varndell: “I’m desperate to play for my country again”

Wasps winger Tom Varndell has had another exemplary, try-filled season, and has admitted that a call-up to the England squad this summer would be the perfect way to cap a successful year. “I’m desperate to play for my country again,” he says. “I think if I finish the season strongly I’ll have every chance of breaking onto that summer tour to Argentina. I know that if I continue playing well then I’ll get that shot that I really, really want.”

Varndell has not played for England since 2008, in an international career that saw him win four caps sporadically between 2006-2008. He says that head coach Lancaster has kept in the loop over the course of the season. “Just before the last squad was announced for the Six Nations I spoke to him. He just told me I was playing well and told me what I needed to focus on, and to just keep aiming for that summer tour.”

It would seem, then, that Varndell is firmly in Lancaster’s plans for the summer tour to Argentina. Of course, at the time the head coach’s comments may have presupposed the fact that one or more of Chris Ashton, Mike Brown and Alex Goode would be busy in Australia – that looks less likely now than it did then. So it could come down to whether Lancaster wants to grant Varndell another chance, or give the likes of Ashton an opportunity to find some form. There are very few fans in the country that would begrudge Varndell a chance over Ashton, whose international form has faltered alarming of late.

Varndell insists, however, that a rough patch is all part and parcel of professional rugby. “Ashton’s proved that he’s a try-scorer and he’s proved it at the highest level as well,” comments Varndell. “Every player goes through lower periods, and I don’t believe he was playing that badly. When you do so well in a season then players tend to focus on you a little bit more in the following season.”

Varndell himself has never really suffered that kind of drought, as such – when he has been on the pitch, that is. Something soured during his time at Leicester and a frustrating lack of opportunities saw him turn to great rivals of the time Wasps, for whom he will win his 100th cap this weekend against Exeter – if he is selected, as he notes modestly.

“When I came here I was at quite a low point in my career,” says the rejuvenated Varndell. “I wasn’t playing particularly well and they gave me a chance to really get on top of my form. The coaches that were here then – Shaun Edwards and Tony Hanks – they gave me the confidence to start playing well again. I’ve played some of my best rugby here, and enjoyed it as well. The boys here are all good mates and we get on really well.”

Varndell has been part of the CoacHclasses programme in partnership with Brita, which gives children the chance to develop their skills learning from the Wasps players

There’s no doubt that Varndell has added a razor-sharp finishing edge to Wasps’ game, but they are far from the finished article. They need to win their final two games to salvage a season that has seen them slide out of the top four into eighth, and to the brink of European wilderness next season. He is under no illusions about the hard work that is needed over the next few weeks.

“The last few games have been tough (Wasps have lost their last five in a row) – we narrowly lost to Northampton at home, and that set everything off really. The coaches have made it really clear that we’ve got standards to meet, and we didn’t meet them at the weekend (against the Tigers).”

One of the great success stories of his time at Wasps, particularly over the last couple of seasons, has been his partnership with fellow flyer Christian Wade – their partnership is undoubtedly the most dangerous in the Premiership. But what are Varndell’s thoughts on his partner’s chances of making the Lions tour, as one of those now infamous ‘bolters’?

“Christian’s been on fantastic form this year, and some of the tries he’s scored have been pretty special,” he notes in a non-committal manner. “Would I take him? Yes, whether I was Lions coach or England coach I would want Christian in any one of my teams.”

Varndell went on to outline the crushing disappointment that a failure to qualify for Europe’s top competition would bring with it. “After playing Leinster at home a couple of weeks ago we got a real taste for what playing Heineken Cup rugby would be like at the club next season, and now we’re desperate for that,” he says. “The players want nothing more than to be in the Heineken Cup – it’s the best competition you can be in at club level.”

For now, then, Varndell’s focus is on one final push for Wasps to secure Heineken Cup rugby next season. But if they do that, and he adds another couple of tries to his already impressive tally of 12 on the way, it would not be surprising to see him tearing down the wing in England colours this summer.

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

London Wasps are working with BRITA, sponsors of the London Wasps Community Foundation, running CoacHclasses for kids throughout the summer holidays and supporting grassroots rugby in the community.

31 thoughts on “Tom Varndell: “I’m desperate to play for my country again”

  1. He can’t tackle a good dinner. What’s the point in axing Ashton because of his questionable defence (recently) and replacing him with a turn style?

    1. Picking wingers is a balancing act. Their primary job is to score tries, but defending is important. With Ashton, the balance is there as his defence is not as bad as people suggest (although it was poor in 6N), and no doubt he can score tries.

      But with Varndell, although it has improved, his defence still isn’t great.

      Wade and Ashton to be England first choice wingers going forward; with Strettle and May next in line.

      I’m a Varndell fan, but I think he is too far down the pecking order.

  2. He is undoubtedly one of the best Attacking wingers in the country – but like so many other wingers, there are still question marks over his defence. I don’t, however, believe his defence is any worse than anyone else’s – Ashton included, so why not take him to Argentina as part of the squad and give him a chance.
    Lancaster should, without a shadow of a doubt, not play the likes of Ashton or Goode as they’ve had enough chances to show what they can do – so give others a chance this summer, then in the Autumn internationals, he will have a wider selection of players to choose from.
    Plus Goode is rubbish

    1. I don’t agree that Argentina should be used as a developmental tour. Argentina are a top, top side! Going down there with a second string side would be an insult. I would take the best squad possible after our Lions are gone.

      For me, that wouldn’t include Goode anyway, but Ashton certainly.

    2. Goode is not rubbish. He just brings different skills to the full-back berth which are not to everyones liking.

      If he is rubbish why is he first choice full back for the current Premiership leaders?

      1. I agree that Goode is not rubbish – but he is below Brown and Foden in the pecking order, in my opinion.

  3. this season has seen the best crop of wingers england has ever had which has been completely wasted by lancaster. hes totally committed to ignoring anyone with genuine pace but instead picks players that have the skill set to impliment his game plan. until he decides to give the players their way and allow heads up rugby instead of adherring to a game plan i doubt we’ll see fliers in the england test team. i mean come on any of these guys would at least get on to the bench of most international teams:

    could be fun 7s team tho!

    1. I really don’t think Monye or Strettle are flyers, and you are being a little harsh on SL.

      Monye/ Strettle/ Sharples all had recent enough chances and have not delivered. None should be discarded but none demanding inclusion.

      Yarde and Thompstone look good but no great. Varndell has chances a long time ago – but still is not a great defender.

      The two I think should genuinely be given a shot are Wade and May. Neither have been given or shot, and they both look class. Both of these two will have to fight it out for the other wing spot to Ashton, because he goes nowhere for me.

    2. best crop of wingers england has ever had?

      so the likes of Lewsey, Cohen, Lugar, Balshaw, Healey and Robinson was a worse crop than right now? find that hard to believe if i am honest.

      sure, all of the young lads we have at the moment are good. but to say that it is the best ever crop is possibly over egging it a bit. after all, it is very hard to compare generations, and we currently have so much perceived depth because of the professionalism in the sport, and how much the game has changed and grown in the last 10 years.

      this article gives quite a nice view into where english rugby is right now.

  4. it just seems a bit churlish to snub such a wealth of talent.

    i agree Monye/ Strettle/ Sharples aren’t the front runners. but, as lancaster loves his stats its odd that varndell has been top try scorer in the premiership for 2 years running, 4 times in his career, wade is second with 10 (which wouldve put him first place most years) wingers are there to score tries. end of. defense is something a team can work on together but indivisual attacking brilliance is innate. and atm england havent got a clue where the try line is.

    althogh neil back was top try scorer in ’98 with 16 tries… which doesnt mean he shouldve played on the wing.

    1. I agree with you that wingers are there to score tries, but not the end of part. That is not where their job stops. It is no use a winger scoring two tries, if he is at fault defensively for three. The point is the same as I was making above, it is about the balance. Does their attacking talent our weigh the weaknesses in their play? With Wade/ May, yes, with Varndell I unfortunately think that it does not.

  5. Is Varndell really a defensive liability? Wasps are playing premiership rugby this year because of his try saver on Vesty. Thought he tackled pretty well against Tigers as well (Daly got run over a couple of times and Wade got bounced off)

    I’m not suggesting he should be picked for his defence, but I don’t see his defence is so poor that he should be excluded on those grounds.

    The other aspect of Varndell’s game I like is his ability to get in the air, so he’s a pretty handy operator when it comes to regaining possession on the restart.

    Taking Fiji out of the equation it is 4 tries by back 3 players in 16 games under Lancaster (2 for Foden, 2 for Ashton), this must be the most impotent attack in our history. We have 3 premiership wingers who have managed a decent strike rate over any period of time (Wade, Varndell and Ashton of which Ashton is still has the best strike rate). May’s is pretty decent as well, especially as he plays a fair few games from FB. No one outside of those 4 has shown they can attain/sustain a decent strike rate over any period of time. The solution to our problems won’t be found by picking people who don’t score tries and club level and suddenly expect them to be running them in for fun at international level. We should be evaluating whether Wade, Varndell or May can step up before we look anywhere else.

    Behind the fairly brash public persona I think Ashton is actually quite a fragile character, I would like to see him rebuild at Sarries, get on a hot streak, and fully get his confidence back before he’s back in an England shirt. I would retain Ashton in the EPS, but wouldn’t take him to Argentina.

  6. There’s no denying that Wade and Varndell are quality finishers, especially Wade. However there are two problems. Both are defensively frail, often opting to come inside to make tackles leaving an overlap and both drift poorly, they just don’t have that level of judgement. I think it’s going to take time for that to change in Wade but it’s probably too late for Varndell.

    The other problem is that England doesn’t use finishers effectively at the minute. Tries are mostly made by the movement of the centres. Even when the ball does make it out to the wing, it’s often to a forward barrelling his way down. There’s not good enough distribution in the centres to properly utilise a good winger so the importance is to focus on wingers with good defence.

    That said, I’m not sure that’s how Lancaster has been viewing the side with balance. He wants the best players on the pitch and is sacrificing balance in the wings, the centres and the back row in order to get it, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Wade and Varndell in Argentina and only seeing the ball when other people run past them.

    1. as to how england score their tries atm, would they score more tries outwide if they had a proper strike runner out there? theyre very good at using all of their tuilagis in any strike move, if they had another player as threatening as him i would imagine the ball would find its way into their hands too.

      a winger with good defense = a fullback

      not the same attacking creature as a thourobred wing.

      1. Not sure I agree on the last point. Rugby is an incredibly defensive game and as much of the attack will come down the wing, it is more and more important for the winger to be able to tackle and anticipate what his opposite number is going to do. Think Cueto, think Sivivatu, think Alex Tuilagi. You ignore defence down the wings and you end up in Wasps’ position of having scored lots of tries but having conceded more.

        1. Varndell and Wade have scored 32 in comps this season, do you really think they are directly accountable for 33 or more tries conceded?

          Wasps issue has been not having a grizzly pack, not having enough of the ball and being too easy to take on upfront/through the middle. E.g. The Leinster half time team talk didn’t seem to be “lets get the ball out wide more as Wade is a liability” it was “lets hold onto the ball, take it up the middle and make sure he doesn’t see any more of it”.

          I certainly don’t see Wade and Varndell as contributing more to Wasps’ problem than they contribute to the solution.

    2. “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

      You may be right, we could try Wade and Varndell, play a slow full back, pick a 6 @ 8, lose the battle at the breakdown, fail to get over the gainline, not pass or offload the ball in the centre, get no quality ball out wide and watch Wade and Varndell do nothing but defend for 80 mins (probably not brilliantly). However there’s not harm in trying, we certainly don’t have a functioning back 3 at the moment so we have to evaluate who can come in to make a difference and we can’t do that without picking them. We don’t have a second tier team coming to Twickenham this autumn, so if we don’t try these players out now then when?

      Brown at fullback, a proper number 8 (Morgan or Vunipola) gives us people to run off (as Wade does off Vunipola at Wasps and as Foden did off Morgan against France), a couple of flankers who can help us secure quick ball and we’ll be back to a decent side again (NZ and Scotland).

      If we persist playing in a manner that doesn’t create anything to finish then I think it’s even more imperative to take a look at Wade as he’s the only player who can make something from nothing, whilst not without risks we have been making nothing from nothing with out back 3 also being defensively at fault for about half the tries scored against us in the 6N.

  7. well said matt! the back 3 isnt functioning, its not scoring tries and whats worse its letting tries through as well! so at the moment there isnt the balance of attack/defence thats been mentioned earlier.

    lancaster hinted earlier this month that some players featured in the 6N will be rested this summer if they dont lion (which i am now making a verb). would be great to see him rest goode and ashton and bring in some of the names we’ve mentioned. with wade/varndell at the top of the list.

    xxxwookie you’re right that defence is important for a winger but the gutting point about england is, wales game aside, they have a good pack that gives them go forward which creates oppertunities- which are then squandered because theres no one on the pitch with any speed. crofts probably the fastest guy in the squad!

    1. ashton is pretty fast… you dont score a 90m try against the wallabies if you dont have pace.

      the issue is that we have a backline who are butchering chances.

      Goode and Flood managed to blow a 4 on 1. barritt and manu hardly ever shift the ball, and goode lacks the penetration so it is hard to run lines off of him. this makes it very hard for someone like ashton (or anyone for that matter) to score tries. that being said, ashton’s poor defence meant he should have been dropped. he is a confidence player, and when he isnt scoring tries, his head drops. ashton does not fit into the current outside backs that england have, in fact no winger with a finishing mentality does. therefore it needs to be changed, otherwise we can kiss any hopes of a decent RWC goodbye.

      a fair few (not all) of wade and varndell’s tries come because they have a 13 (Daly) who has an outside break and electric pace, therefore he can get outside a man and draw Wade/Varndell’s man on to him, give a pass and then Wade/Vardndell has the 15 to beat – that is when they use their pure speed and agility to take the chance.
      more of wade and varndell’s chances come from good hard counter attacking, something that seems non-existent when Alex Goode plays 15 for england.

      brown or foden needs to play fullback. twelvetrees needs to take the 2nd playmaker role at 12. and then we will have the players to create the space for the wingers. other guys like Tomkins, Daly and Eastmond should be around the squad too.

      one final note. an issue i have noticed with wade is that once he has the ball, he keeps it. this is all well and good when he scores, but in the wasps game on the weekend he blew a definite try by not giving the ball to Daly, who was screaming for it on the inside. he has to learn that he is not always going to score, and this is another aspect of his game (along with defence) which needs to be improved.

      i also believe that varndell is actually a stronger defender that both wade and Daly. he has more bulk, and by the sounds of it wasps have advised him on better ways of using it. he is definitely never going to be a defensive rock, but he seems a lot better than he used to be. also he seems to have improved a lot with his positioning and kick receiving. one final area that varndell out does wade is the passing. vardnell threw a lovely ball to southwell on the weekend to start a counter attack, while wade threw a (shorter) pass that seemed very loopy. again this is an area wade must realise needs improvement, as it will help teammates score too.

  8. For me Varndell is the backs version of Phil Dowson. For so many years people on posts like these practically begged for him to be given a chance at test level, but when given his chance, he ultimately was a let down and showed club level is his highest gear. Other examples of top quality club players who have no higher gear are: Allen, Turner-Hall, Kennedy, Easter and Strettle.

    1. Allen, Turner-Hall, Kennedy, Easter and Strettle alll play for clubs in the top 4 of the premiership and look good because of the talent around them so they get selected. varndell on the other hand is managing to cause a stir in a mid table team, between him and wade theyve dragged wasps up from relegation.

      varndell is bald because he’s been tearing his hair out in frustration.

    2. Bit harsh on Dowson as he wasn’t selected when he was at the peak of his club form.

      The point really is we don’t know if someone is just a good club player or can make a step up when they play international rugby. Until you play international rugby all you can be is a good club player. There are plenty of others who have been accused of only being a good club player, got the chance to play international rugby and were found to be pretty effective there as well (Parling and Brown being recent examples). We only found out they could step up by selecting them.

      1. Matt is right, you need to give them a chance to find out.

        Also, I think doug blogg is wrong to suggest that Wade and Varndell dragged Wasps away from relegation. It is a lot more than that! Signings like Haskell and Johnson have been instrumental, as have the likes of Launchbury. They are good, but you are over-hyping it. For me, Varndell is only going to get a shot if there are injuries. Realistically, be is below Ashton, Strettle and Wade – any probably more; and I think rightly so. If this happens and he takes his chance then great, but it will be unlikely.

        1. Launchbury, Sam Jones, Elliot Daly and Billy Vunipola are all also credited with helping pull wasps out of the gutter.

          As you have mentioned, Haskell and Johnson have been a bit help. Marco Wentzel has ruled the lineout. and the impact made by Masi and Chris Bell this year has been huge. Joe Simpson staying fit has helped too.

          The revival of Wasps has been down to a lot more than just wade and varndell. to claim that only those two saved wasps from relegation is a very narrow minded idea.

  9. he is a good finisher playing with a good backline. but he is gammon in defence. he had a chance for england and bottled it. leicester don’t let players go without a reason. he had a season in the old division 1 on loan, after being the prem top try scorer, to improve the defensive aspects of his game. he didnt so they binned him off. same reason he struggled in an england shirt. you cant hide a player in defense in an international. he’s a good club player, and not alot more.

    1. 4 caps (3 starts) 3 tries. Including tries against Aus and NZ away.

      He was still only 22 when he last got a chance (one cap off the bench against NZ).

      If our back 3 was on fire and it was a case of “if it ain’t broke …”, but the last 32 starts for wingers in meaningful internationals have yielded 3 tries. Varndell got 3 tries in 4, has to be worth another look in my opinion. He may not be good enough, but he’s earned the right to find out.

  10. wisdom from matt.

    all i can say is put wingers on the wing and a fullback at fullback and select them on form from the premiership and european competitions. the rest falls into place.

  11. The key is Wade. Get him on the Argentina tour and get Gustard working on his defence. Then get Farrell working with him as well when he’s back from Lions duty.
    I don’t see the point of wasting time with Varndell when there are better (younger) options available.
    Wade, May, Thompstone, are just three playing regularly in the Prem who could step up.

  12. this varndell is a liability thing is looking very hard to the past. His positioning may not be the greatest but his intent in the tackle is miles beyond what it was, anyone who was watching the other day would see that when he stopped a front rower dead in his tracks on his try line. (billy vunipola joined in after the tackle had occurred)

    We are not getting the ball wide very well at the moment (something that may be changed slightly by tuilagi going on the lions tours and 36 not) however the other time the back 3 get the ball then is from kicks down field. England’s current back 3 have not been showing a great threat, despite mike brown’s best efforts, whereas any team in the world would be apprehensive about kicking a long ball to varndell and wade.

    Finally there is a point I have made previously on this website, that this season Christian wade has found it so easy to play because as soon as there is space he can go flat out and not worry that he will have someone who can keep up with him, and also as seen against quins and a number of other teams, varndell taking the ball at pace outside the 13 channel has created space for wade. So it may be a risk but if you play wade, give him his best chance and play him with varndell.

    1. agree that wade has had the chance to just go flat out. but i think that this is due to knowing that Varndell and Daly are there.

      Daly’s ability to create space and get an outside break means he is a huge threat. and he is creating space for wade and varndell.

      if you saw Southwell’s try against Exeter this weekend you would see that a nice pass from Jones meant Daly could drift outside his man. When he had the ball in hand he was already in a hole. The winger then hesitated and Daly threw a great ball to Southwell, who could just trot in. Wade was lined up outside Southwell, and i think Varndell was also not too far away. at the moment england do not have centres who could get the ball away like that.

      Manu is a good player, and an absolute beast. but we need to have someone like 12Ts inside him, able to throw the ball around. or we need to shift manu to 12 and have Daly outside him. also Manu needs to look for the offload, much like Tomkins (and SBW used to do) so that runners can hit the space he creates. these are the type of situations that Ashton has always been dangerous in, but they just arent happening for england.

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