Sunday, 16 August 2015

England Rugby - And Then There Were 39...

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of chat from fans, pundits and former players as to the composition of the England Rugby World Cup Squad. Initially it was a squad of 50, which then got cut down to 46 (45 travelled to Denver for the training camp, with Nick Easter remaining behind to continue rehabilitation on his injury). On the 7th August, the squad was cut from 46 to 39, and that is where we find ourselves now. Yesterday, what was essentially an England XV lined up against a France XV for a World Cup warm up match. There were very few names in the squad that I expect to see in the starting XV to face Ireland, but the game in essence was an audition for those players who are in the 39 looking to still be there when the squad is trimmed to 31.

It is very difficult as an outsider to comment with any substance on the cuts that were made to the England squad as we all have no idea (other than what we were told in the media) about how the players were doing in the training camp. Looking back on the first cuts from the squad, I remember being surprised Maro Itoje didn’t make the trip to Denver. He has had a very positive season at Saracens and captained England Saxons – two things which I suspected would give him enough credit in the bank to survive the first cut but apparently not. The other players cut at this stage were Myler, Daly and Slater. The fly-half battle for England has for a while been between Ford and Farrell. When Cipriani re-appeared on the international scene, the writing was almost on the wall for Myler. Now it has been confirmed that Cipriani won’t be charged for allegedly drink driving after the England/Barbarians until after the World Cup, removing Myler at this stage makes sense. It would have been bad if Myler was cut, and then had to be re-called up due to Cipriani facing legal action. As for Daly and Slater, I was surprised to see them both go but then, they have been on the England fringes for a long time now, and I guess after a brief look at them, Stuart Lancaster decided on the fringes is where they will remain for now.

Following the training camp in Denver, a further 7 players were cut. With this cut, Stuart Lancaster revealed his hand for who would fill the wing positions in the squad. Looking back at recent internationals, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the players picked were Anthony Watson, Jonny May and Jack Nowell. Speaking very much from a biased point of view, I was saddened to see Semesa Rokoduguni cut. I feel as though he hasn’t had a fair chance at an England run since being hurt in his debut against New Zealand. Since that injury, it did take him a long time to find the form which got him picked in the first place, which could be why he was initially left out of the England 50 man squad, only called up because David Strettle pulled out to focus on his move to Clermont. The other players cut were Kyle Eastmond, Matt Kvesic, Matt Mullan and Lee Dickson. Again, from a biased perspective, I think the cutting of Eastmond was a mistake. He and Jonathan Joseph make a fantastic centre partnership for Bath behind George Ford, and that could have worked well for England. As for the other 3 players cut there, I thought Kvesic might last longer but the other two cuts did not surprise me. Matt Mullan is a very good player, but hasn’t had much of a look in for England. The same can be said for Lee Dickson.

So, with a squad of 39 in place, England lined up to take on France at Twickenham last night. The match day squad was:

1.       Mako Vunipola
2.       Rob Webber
3.       Kieran Brookes
4.       George Kruis
5.       Geoff Parling
6.       Tom Wood (Captain)
7.       Calum Clark
8.       Ben Morgan
9.       Richard Wigglesworth
10.   Owen Farrell
11.   Jonny May
12.   Sam Burgess
13.   Henry Slade
14.   Anthony Watson
15.   Alex Goode

16.   Luke Cowan-Dickie
17.   Alex Corbisiero
18.   David Wilson
19.   Dave Attwood
20.   James Haskell
21.   Danny Care
22.   Danny Cipriani
23.   Billy Twelvetrees

I was at Twickenham for the game yesterday and am of the opinion that the game will give Stuart Lancaster a lot to think about for the next few days before announcing the match day squad for the return game in Paris next weekend. England were bettered at the scrum and the lineout throughout most of the game, which was disappointing to see and overall it was not a great performance. There were too many sloppy penalties given away, and both yellow cards were frustrating (incidentally, I read on twitter that Sam Burgess was the first England player to be carded on his debut. Calum Clark was the second England player to be carded during his debut). The man of the match was Anthony Watson, which was well deserved – he took his two tries well. The build-up for Jonny May’s try was also very good and it was taken well. I’d say the partnership of Burgess and Slade worked well in the centre as well. I was impressed with Goode as well. If you take all 6 players that made up the front row during the game, I would say the best 3 were Corbisiero, Webber and Wilson. The scrum really tightened up when they came on.  Cipriani and Twelvetrees didn’t get the chance to prove themselves and should be given another chance, and I suspect if there is one hooker still to be cut from the squad, then it will be Cowan-Dickie. The main thing though is while the performance certainly wasn’t a classic one, England still won 19-14 and sometimes, grinding out results is all that is needed. There is not much point in putting in a spectacular team performance if you then lose.

I expect the team picked to face France in Paris will be slightly different to the one picked for yesterday’s game. Personally, this would be my match day squad:

1.       Alex Corbisiero
2.       Jamie George
3.       David Wilson
4.       Joe Launchbury
5.       Dave Attwood
6.       Tom Wood
7.       James Haskell
8.       Ben Morgan
9.       Danny Care
10.   Danny Cipriani
11.   Jack Nowell
12.   Luther Burrell
13.   Henry Slade
14.   Anthony Watson
15.   Mike Brown

16.   Rob Webber
17.   Joe Marler
18.   Dan Cole
19.   Nick Easter
20.   Geoff Parling
21.   Richard Wigglesworth
22.   George Ford
23.   Sam Burgess

That line up I think brings a few more faces into the mix that probably are nailed on to make the 31, whilst still giving some players the chance to prove themselves. It also gives a couple of players (Launchbury and Brown) to get some game time before September 18th). Haskell playing at 7, like he does for Wasps, could be a useful experiment for England. Not because Haskell needs to prove himself there, but as a back row option in case Chris Robshaw gets injured during the tournament. The main question though is who will make up the 31 man squad that represents England when the tournament kicks off in just over 4 weeks. It was tough putting together a match day 23 for the return game in Paris, but I think it will be a little easier to pick the 31 man squad. I will pick my 31 man squad, and then say why I would cut the players that I have.

LH – Marler, Corbisiero, Vunipola
HK – T. Youngs, George, Webber
TH – Cole, Wilson, Brookes
SR – Lawes, Parling, Attwood, Launchbury
BR – Robshaw, Haskell, Wood, Vunipola, Easter/Morgan
SH – B. Youngs, Care
FH – Ford, Farrell
C – Barritt, Joseph, Burrell, Slade
W – Watson, May, Nowell
FB – Brown, Goode

Of all the fringe players, I think the one that needs to be picked most is Henry Slade. He has proven this season he can play very well at 10, 12 and 13. I cannot decide between Easter and Morgan. I am leaning towards Morgan but Easter could also cover lock if needed (despite not being a massive fan of playing lock). Launchbury I would pick over Kruis only if he can prove he is fully fit and back to his best, after a year of playing no rugby. That could be too much to ask for. To be honest, I think the rest of the positions at the moment pick themselves. But this is why I have cut the players I have:

Sam Burgess – This is the big call to make in the eyes of many. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think it is that big of a call. He played well against France yesterday and should certainly be given the chance again next weekend (although I would say off the bench as I imagine that is where he would feature from if he does make the 31). I just think the world cup has come round too soon. I don’t think him playing as a blindside flanker for Bath and then as a centre for England has helped matters. I can see why Lancaster doesn’t want to pick him as a flanker, but there are players far better suited for the centre than Burgess (one of whom, Eastmond, has already been cut from the squad!) World Cup 2019 if he sticks with union is a definite probability I think. 4 more seasons of playing as a blindside flanker will certainly give the then England coach (if Lancaster has moved on) food for thought.

Danny Cipriani – A tough call to drop him. However, his main role is as a fly half, where he would be behind Ford and Farrell. Alternatively he could be a back-up full back, where he would be behind Brown and Goode in the pecking order I feel.

Calum Clark – Definitely shown some promise and was a worthy call up to the England squad in the first place, but I don’t see him displacing any of Haskell, Robshaw or Wood.

Luke Cowan-Dickie – I suspect he will be one of two battling out for first choice hooker come RWC 2019 with Jamie George. Right now though, I would say he is the most likely to be cut from the 39.

George Kruis – He has definitely shown he fits into the international set up (as in, he doesn’t get phased by the occasion of playing for England). I think, much like Clark, he isn’t likely to displace the other players in his position. Another definite pick for 2019, perhaps playing alongside club mate Itoje.

Billy Twelvetrees – This is where not knowing what has happened in the training squad doesn’t help me out. I would have cut him before we got to this stage and kept Eastmond in the squad. While he does provide another kicking option for England, I think with Ford, Farrell, Slade and Goode – England have enough kicking options.

Richard Wigglesworth – For me it is between him and Danny Care. There isn’t much in it at all. However, you cannot take both without sacrificing someone else in another position. If the squad could be 32, he would make it. Tough decision.

That for me is my England squad. The final big question to be answered is, can this team win the Rugby World Cup? The answer to that question is yes. There is some sturdy opposition coming up over the next few months. If England make it out of their pool (which is no certainty), they have to win it to stand a chance of making the final. If they finish runners up, they will then likely have to face South Africa (a team that a Stuart Lancaster-led England have yet to beat), and then New Zealand. If they win their pool however, I suspect they would face either Samoa or Scotland in the quarter final, followed by France, Ireland or Argentina in the semi-final. Not in any way to disparage those nations, but that seems a much nicer path to the final than South Africa and New Zealand. In just over 4 weeks, England 2015 kicks off, and it should be good one.