Lancaster makes his boldest call

Date published: August 29 2015

England's squad might divide opinion but Stuart Lancaster cannot be accused of failing to be bold with his selections.

Sam Burgess and Henry Slade have a grand total of two caps between them yet that matters little to Lancaster based on what the coaches have seen from the duo in training. "They have both trained the house down," being the overwhelming verdict.

The noises out of the England camp on Thursday suggested that Lancaster had been thinking of taking both players for some time, a decision that was only strengthened by their composed outings against France.

Rather than opting somewhat safely for Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees, regulars with England over the last two years, Lancaster has gone with his gut.

That doesn't mean it was an easy move. He admitted to reporters that informing Burrell that he hadn't made it, a player he has known since the centre was 15, ranked as one of the tougher moments in his coaching career and that tears were shed.

But, the virtues of going with Burgess and Slade outweigh those moments a coach must dread, enough anyway for the normally pragmatic Lancaster to make the biggest call of his career.

Burgess has only played six games as a centre for Bath and now one for England but has swayed the coaching staff to plump for what he can offer with his power and leadership. Now he has to persuade everyone else, with Lancaster extolling the subtleties of his game as much as his obvious force.

"Sam certainly brings physicality at 116kgs (18st 3lb), and is as quick as any of our centres, except for Jonathan Joseph, and is certainly as quick as Luther. He is powerful, and understands and reads defences very well," he told the Telegraph.

“He is a very aggressive tackler but one of the main attributes that goes unnoticed more than anything else is that he runs effective lines, even when he doesn’t get the ball.

“There was a try in Wednesday’s training in which he was a big part and didn’t get the ball, when he ran the line he did, and three good defenders stopped because they thought he was getting the ball and Alex Goode ran round the back and in for a try. It is that threat at the line, and the ability to change the line, that has put him in the picture.”

Going with Burgess has in some way taken the attention off Slade, who feels like the rough diamond in England's backline after his confident debut. The 22-year-old's playmaking ability can transform England's attack much in the same way Jonathan Joseph did during the Six Nations.

The selection of Slade and Burgess shows not only that it's never too late to make a World Cup squad, but also highlights England's general low figures in terms of age and caps.

This is England's youngest-ever World Cup squad at an average age of 26.2, with their lowest number of average caps at 24.8 since 1995. They are some way off the desired total of 600 caps in his starting XV that Lancaster had targeted by the tournament when he took up the role in 2012.

Two of his late calls, in opting for George Kruis over Dave Attwood and Kieran Brookes over Alex Corbisiero, were by slim margins. Deciding to select Ben Morgan over Nick Easter was simply down to whether the Gloucester number eight would be fit enough after shattering his ankle in January.

Danny Cipriani as discussed before the squad announcement has made huge strides, but there is no room for him at full-back or fly-half ahead of the chosen duo in each position. Watching him kick on and maximise his talent has been in many ways a success story, but he has just fallen short.

Those debates are all settled, much to Lancaster's relief given the date for his decision had been in his mind for two years. 

Now the real work begins, which sounds absurd given England have already been in camp for ten weeks. The biggest decisions are yet to be made.

by Ben Coles