The latest England EPS is the perfect example of pragmatism over ambition as consistency has been preferred to class leaving The Red Rose lacking a certain spark.
Lancaster’s latest squad was met predominantly with nonchalance from England fans as most of the usual suspects were presented, the only murmurs of discontent stirred up over the absence of a certain Danny Cipriani.
Given the way England were completely out-classed during their final test in New Zealand earlier this year it makes perfect sense for Lancaster to adopt a more conservative approach in what is set to be his toughest year as Head Coach to date. In New Zealand, England, to a large extent threw caution to the wind as they attempted to match their hosts ambition and intensity and unfortunately came unstuck as they found out they weren’t quite up to the task.
Now obviously the England players had just come off the back of a gruelling domestic and European campaign resulting in some weary performances and key men missing through injury. However, it’s easy to overlook the fact the All Blacks players were in the midst of a Super Rugby season so weren’t exactly much fresher in that department.
For all the excuses, the reality was simple, England simply lacked the players to match the All Blacks expansive, fast-paced game plan and were ultimately shown up in the final test despite hanging on to their opponents coat tails during the first two games. Lancaster appears to have learnt from this and has therefore adopted a more conservative approach with his latest squad, re-calling seasoned campaigners such as Brad Barritt and calling up pragmatic players such as Calum Clark.
On the face of it this seems the sensible approach, however my concern is that in leaving out players such as Danny Cipriani, Will Fraser and Christian Wade, Lancaster has shorn England of the very men who can provide his side with a point of difference. That’s not to suggest Wade or Cipriani should be starting, heaven forbid, rather that in selecting the likes of Jack Nowell and Stephen Myler over them, England are left without the kind of players who can turn a game on it’s head.
Take the case of fly-half for example, Stephen Myler has been one of the top performing and most consistent 10’s in England over the last 18 months, steering his side to the Premiership and European double last year. He has been unfairly labelled as ‘boring’, but equally what does he offer that Owen Farrell doesn’t? Whilst Cipriani may not be the man you want to shut out a game during a World Cup, if England were behind and needed to score quickly. who would you rather bring on for Farrell?
The same case could be presented in the back row where Calum Clark has been another stand-out performer for Northampton, but seems to only offer the same as the likes of Wood, Robshaw and Haskell. Yes we have seen they have worked incredibly effectively for England in recent years, but the reality is you can have too much of a good thing. Someone like Will Fraser however would offer something a bit different, a more ‘traditional’ 7 who will go looking for the ball and win you turnovers, it is these kind of players who can be the difference during a tight game.
Christian Wade however is probably the most unlucky of the players to have missed out. In fairness I wouldn’t even consider starting him at this stage given his defensive lapses (although which of England’s wingers could be considered solid defensively?), however should England be chasing the game in the dying minutes he is the kind of player who can score something from nothing and genuinely make an impact off the bench, could you really say the same for someone like Jack Nowell (who incidentally I would start ahead of Wade)?
The simple fact is that England are only going to be getting 90% out of their playing resources by selecting a squad like this. Whilst that’s likely to be enough to see them through to the latter rounds of the World Cup, will it really be enough to win the tournament proper? Can an England side missing a number of their most naturally gifted players genuinely compete with the likes of the All Blacks and Springboks on rugby’s biggest stage?
You only have to look at the All Blacks with Julian Saves and Ben Smith, the Springboks with Willie le Roux, or even the Wallabies with Israel Folau, which player(s) do England have that stand-out for them like this? These are the kinds of players who can win you a World Cup, unfortunately in the current England squad there is nobody at this level. Rokoduguni and Eastmond might be the ones but they are yet to prove themselves on the international stage.
The reality is you can make a classy player consistent, but you can’t make a consistent player classy. Whilst a more pragmatic approach may have paid off for England during the 2003 World Cup the game has changed a lot since then, and in reality this approach relies on the world’s top teams being below their best whilst England will have to get absolutely everything out of every last player to stand a chance of winning.