I’m a big fan of the culture Stuart Lancaster has instilled in the current England set-up, however has he now gone too far?
Four big name players have recently been omitted from England’s World Cup training squad, including two regular starters, and the two most recent recipients of the European Player of the Year award.
This means that England will now be without four potential starters at the World Cup, whilst the Wallabies are changing their eligibility rules to allow for the inclusion of players like Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell and George Smith.
At any other time I would fully support Lancaster’s stance, however a home World Cup is such a rare occasion, that maybe a win at all costs mentality is more important than having a team we can be proud of off the field?
Now obviously the four players I am referring to are Manu Tuilagi, Dylan Hartley, Nick Abendanon and Steffon Armitage. Whilst there are arguments for excluding all four players, can you honestly say every other nation with World Cup winning ambitions would have done the same?
As already highlighted, the Wallabies (one of England’s group opponents) have conveniently relaxed their selection criteria to allow them to include a number of high profile players who would otherwise have been ineligible for selection.
Elsewhere it appears like the French Rugby Union are set to overlook Yoann Huget’s disgraceful stamp on an opponents face in order to ensure he is available for the World Cup later this year, it looks like this could be the first of many cases of ‘turning a blind eye’.
Whilst I fully support the exclusion of Manu Tuilagi, as an assault on anyone, never mind a police officer cannot be overlooked, the other three exclusions continue to baffle me somewhat, no matter the reasoning.
The case of Dylan Hartley is an interesting one. His past record really counts against him here, but given he was only given four weeks for a ‘head-but’ it’s clear even the disciplinary panel didn’t see it as a major transgression given his prior record.
To then completely remove him from the squad, even though he would only miss one game (assuming an appeal didn’t reduce it further) smacks of someone more concerned with their image, than with winning a World Cup.
Hartley is one of England’s most experienced players, and has been the first choice hooker for some time now. In his absence, an out of form Rob Webber, or one of the uncapped duo of Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie are being expected to step up in a key position.
Do you really think All Blacks coach Steve Hansen would sit back and remove Dane Coles from his World Cup squad in similar circumstances? Not a bloody chance, he would fight tooth and nail to ensure his first choice hooker was available for selection.
Here-in lies the difference in mentality between a side who have gone an entire season unbeaten, and one who is yet to string together a consistent 12 months that suggests they may stand a chance at the World Cup this year.
Equally, although the exceptional circumstances rule is applied by the RFU rather than Lancaster, do you really think if he pushed for it’s execution, the RFU wouldn’t be willing to consider invoking it for a home World Cup.
I just struggle to imagine any other tier 1 coach who would choose to admit Abendanon and Armitage, such is the form that they are in. These are the two most recent winners of Europe’s biggest individual award, and deservedly so.
Yes, it may ruffle a few feathers, but at this stage England’s sole focus should be on challenging for the World Cup, not on ‘keeping up appearances’. If this doesn’t count as exceptional circumstances then the rule needs to be done away with to draw a line under the situation.
As an England fan, it is now a major concern that Lancaster may be willing to sacrifice a challenge at the World Cup, in place of ensuring his team comes out of it without any major controversies. This is understandable given what happened at the last World Cup, but the wrong mind-set for a host nation.
I’m pretty sure that most England fans would rather see their side at least challenging for the World Cup, despite the odd off-field transgression, rather than going out in the group stages with their off-field reputations intact.
Do you think England risk worrying more about their image than winning at the World Cup?