England get ruthless, back form

Date published: October 22 2014

There will be no November Test action for Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Freddie Burns or Danny Cipriani with England over the next month.

There will be no Test action for Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Freddie Burns or Danny Cipriani with England over the next month.

At least not initially. None of the quartet have been named in England’s squad, but may be part of the extra six or seven who link up for training after this week’s European action. That involvement though won’t disguise their drop down the pecking order.

The latter two aren’t so much of a shock. Burns dazzled for England against New Zealand in the first Test, but with Owen Farrell and George Ford England’s number one and two at fly-half and Stephen Myler guiding Northampton to the top of the Premiership, there can only be three.

Cipriani continues to show international potential, just not enough to usurp the three players ahead of him and Burns. Arguments will be made that Myler is too conservative but that isn’t a fair assessment, his distribution is excellent.

Being excluded from the squad will simply fire up Burns and Cipriani and push them to improve, although the chance to see Cipriani start a Test at Twickenham would have answered many questions about his progression.

Ashton’s omission you would think is more serious. Having missed last year’s Six Nations, he appeared to bounce back when he was picked to tour New Zealand, but has now been cast out again. Even with a record of 19 tries in 39 Tests, England haven’t take the easy option of keeping him around.

Going forward he remains potent, his brace of tries against Clermont last weekend underline that, but those defensive frailties and questions over his decision-making, while not as severe as in the past, are certainly still there.

England are getting to the stage where minor mistakes can no longer be tolerated, nor questionable form. Ashton might have done adequately, but in Semesa Rokoduguni there is an option that England have to test out – no one has made more metres, breaks or beaten more defenders in the Premiership this season.

The Fijian-born British Army soldier at times is unplayable, but whether he can reproduce that form at Test level is England’s biggest question going into four matches against New Zealand, South Africa, Samoa and Australia.

Rokoduguni would certainly solve a right-wing dilemma, with Marland Yarde likely to start on the opposite wing despite not showing his best form since joining Harlequins. Christian Wade and Anthony Watson are under consideration, but lose out to Jonny May and Jack Nowell.

Billy Twelvetrees meanwhile was rumoured to have missed out on his place on the morning of the announcement, perhaps paying the price for not cementing his spot in the 12 shirt over the whole of last season. Yet England have stuck with him. Henry Slade, impressing out of position at 13 for Exeter, perhaps is unlucky to miss out.

The secondary playmaker has been a Lancaster trait and now Kyle Eastmond appears the man of choice although Luther Burrell and Brad Barritt, who has started the season at a frenzy, are options.

Burrell of course may end up back in the 13 channel following Manu Tuilagi’s injury. Losing the Leicester centre is not a catastrophe – there is time for him to recover before the World Cup – but he is still England’s most effective back by some distance. The All Blacks certainly won’t miss him.

Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph have clicked so well for Bath this season however that fielding the duo together in midfield would seem practical.

The problem for Lancaster and his coaches is arriving at yet another set of international fixtures with England’s best centre partnership still unsettled. Giving the combination of Eastmond and Tuilagi time to gel over the next month would have been ideal.

In the forwards Calum Clark’s inclusion ahead of Will Fraser highlights the intense competition England have in that area, even with Tom Croft and Tom Johnson injured.

Fraser can be considered unlucky to miss out after a good start to the season, while James Haskell is pushing Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood to be at their best.

No side is without injury heading into November but England will miss Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole in the scrum – all Lions – as Matt Mullan and Kieran Brookes prepare to be tested. Mako Vunipola is also absent, so too Geoff Parling and Ed Slater.

The need for a fourth lock has handed George Kruis a chance. His inclusion – along with Clark, Rokoduguni and Joseph – proves that Lancaster isn’t afraid to pick on form. Whatever happens in the next four Tests, the fact that England have been bold with those selections is commendable, although the selection of Twelvetrees is more out of faith. Overall however the emphasis has been on recent performances.

November represents England’s last real chance to experiment before cementing their best side in next year’s Six Nations. For some this is their big moment. For some excluded like Ashton, there might not be a way back.

Predicted XV to face New Zealand: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Semesa Rokoduguni, 13 Luther Burrell, 12 Kyle Eastmond, 11 Marland Yarde, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Danny Care, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 David Wilson, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler

by Ben Coles