If earlier this year you correctly predicted the 31 players Eddie Jones is taking to Japan for the World Cup, then I’d also like to know your picks for the lottery this week. And if you’ve got any good stock tips. Because you’re either Nostradamus or Marty McFly.
The term ‘bolters’ is too underwhelming a term to describe the meteoric rise of Lewis Ludlam and Ruaridh McConnochie. To a lesser extent this also applies to Willi Heinz and Jack Singleton. Four players who didn’t have a cap between them until Sunday afternoon.
In his article, Ed Alexander has already weighed the various players’ merits against the risk of their inexperience and discarding of stalwarts such as Mike Brown and Ben Te’o. We also lost Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Dylan Hartley. Oh and Nathan Hughes, Sam Simmonds and Alex Goode. Danny Cipriani, Richard Wigglesworth and Ben Morgan.
Basically, there are a lot of good, experienced players who aren’t there. Jones has his reasons, and selection is always an art, not a science.
Some of the rationale is more tangible – in The Telegraph, Jones is described as ‘[conceding] that he had to change his view two years ago when he realised that the legs of his experienced core of players “were about to fall off”‘ – some of it less concrete, as was alluded to in Billy Vunipola’s post-match interview.
Accepting the man-of-the match award, he said ‘that gave me goosebumps, seeing [Ludlam’s] tears at the start. Playing often, you can take it for granted. To see that emotion, it motivates you and it excites. They bring that energy every day, not just to the game, and it is contagious.’
Jones said something similar to the BBC: ‘It’s always nice to bring new blood in … It freshens everything up and when you’ve got that enthusiasm as young players do, it helps to add to the squad.’
A settled squad can be good. But it can also breed complacency. Injecting some new blood and different perspectives and experiences can bring the best out of everyone in the squad.
McConnochie and Ludlam have had unconventional routes to the top, McConnochie via Cranbrook in Kent (in the sixth tier) through sevens and the Olympics before moving to Bath; while Ludlam was still fighting for a Northampton Saints contract at the start of the season, only coming into the England camp for the Barbarians game as cover for Teimana Harrison.
That is a very different career compared to the likes of Owen Farrell and George Ford, or the Vunipolas – rugby royalty fast-tracked through club academies and age-grade rugby.
Now the cynics among us will say, international-class rugby players should not need added motivation to play well for their country. And to an extent, they are right. But if shaking things up can bring an extra percent or two from the established stars, as Vunipola seemed to suggest, then that is a valuable contribution; and that’s on top of the impact of Ludlam’s performance on the pitch.
This is not to dismiss their strengths as players. They earned their place in the training camps through hard work and ability, but it also seems Jones feels they bring other qualities to the squad that can help bring out the best in their teammates.
Sometimes forgotten is that the team sport of rugby involves, well, a team. Of people. With personalities. We, as fans, see the players’ skill on the pitch, but how they contribute to the overall environment, whether they are a positive or negative influence on their teammates, whether they promote constructive competition or generate toxic division, is all an unknown to us.
This is a frequent factor in sport of all forms – to use an extreme example, compare the final few games Manchester United played under José Mourinho to the first games under Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Same players on the pitch, no radically different game plan, but a change to personnel brought a completely different attitude and performance.
Now we can also arguably look to Ben Te’o’s exclusion from the squad – and Danny Cipriani’s for that matter – as a counter point. Clearly something happened with Mike Brown in training, although the details have not been divulged, but it is not a stretch to think that may have factored into Jones’ eventual decision not to take him as part of the 31.
For another extreme example, look to possibly the most talented England batsman of all time, Kevin Pieterson’s eventual booting from the England cricket team after a spectacular breakdown in his relationship with teammates.
On the flip side, of course inexperience is a risk. You only need to look at Gareth Davies’ try down the blindside on Sunday, where Ludlam was pinned into the side of the scrum by Aaron Wainwright, for an example of that. You feel a cannier and world-wise operator may have identified what Wales were trying to do and been able to counter it. But that’s a hypothetical.
We’ve all played with a great player who left something to be desired in the personality department. While we’ve also seen the brilliant impact a player can make in a very short amount of time, almost regardless of whether or not they take the field. On a long tour abroad, with the world watching and the highest of stakes in play, who would you want in your corner?
By Henry Ker