No sooner than I put away my Harlequins underpants, oncie and jester’s hat, and then signed off for the season, than Stuart Lancaster announced the second batch of his England training squad for the tour of New Zealand next month.
We Quins fans mustn’t get carried away, because – for the uninitiated and/or passing rugby fan – the extraordinary background needs explaining.
The First Test against the All Blacks is on 7th June.
The extreme physicality of rugby means that there are strict protocols as to the ‘rest periods’ players must have between games. With the Premiership Final on 31st May, none of the players who play in the Premiership Final (i.e. those representing Saracens and Northampton Saints), nor those candidates from Bath and Wasps involved in other vital end-of season matches, will be allowed to play again as early as 7th June.
Ergo, effectively, Lancaster will have to field a second-string (some might say virtually third-string) team on 7th June at Eden Park, Auckland, one of the most formidable places to play rugby under any circumstances.
The following weekend – for the Second Test at Dunedin on 14th June – he’ll be able to pick his first-string team for the first time.
Unfortunate, at best. Catastrophic might be a more appropriate term when you’re facing a three-Test series against the All Blacks in their own back yard.
Apparently, the RFU have been making formal requests and overtures to try and get the First Test put back by a week. However, the Kiwis – and more importantly, the IRB – won’t budge an inch. It’s crackers, but at the back end of last year the RFU dropped a major bollock by agreeing to the schedule in the first place.
Whatever he’s feeling inside, Lancaster has adopted the attitude that he’s simply just got to get on with it.
Accordingly, about ten days ago, he named a 20-man initial England training squad for the tour. This comprised exclusively players whom at that point he knew would be available for the First Test on 7th June.
The headline news was that Danny Cipriani was back in the England orbit for the first time in six years. However, the squad list didn’t included any players from the top four Premiership clubs, who were then about to play in the Premiership semi-finals.
Yesterday he added a second batch of 18 players to his England squad, i.e. those he had now chosen from the two losing clubs in the Premiership semi-finals.
Anthony Allen (Leicester Tigers); Mike Brown (Harlequins); Rob Buchanan (Harlequins); Danny Care (Harlequins); Will Collier (Harlequins); Jamie Gibson (Leicester Tigers); Joe Gray (Harlequins); Graham Kitchener (Leicester Tigers); Joe Marler (Harlequins); Charlie Matthews (Harlequins); Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers); Chris Robshaw (Harlequins); Ed Slater (Leicester Tigers); Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins); Manusamoa Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers); Luke Wallace (Harlequins); Dave Ward (Harlequins); Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers).
Thus Stuart Lancaster now has no fewer than 38 players in his training squad, with even more to be added after the Premiership Final.
Let’s be honest, some of them aren’t going to be going to be playing for England at all in the next six weeks and may even be sent home before any plane leaves for the Southern Hemisphere.
Some will only play for England against the Barbarians in a non-cap game.
But 23 of these first 38 will be in the match-day squad for the First Test against New Zealand on 7th June.
Presumably, subject to form and/or injury withdrawals etc., those 23 will go on to be considered – along with those Lancaster may later add from Saracens, Northampton Saints, Bath or Wasps – for the Second and Third Tests.
Today I would only ask you to consider the 18-man squad announced yesterday, as many as 11 of them being Harlequins.
Remarkably, of those Quins, no fewer than three are uncapped hookers.
Rob Buchanan and Joe Gray were our top pair in 2012/2013, but both have only just returned to fitness after being out injured for 90% of this season.
In September Dave Ward was still our third-choice hooker, but got his chance because the other two were sidelined with their long-term injuries. He’s played pretty well since, despite his throwing–in being indifferent. You can hardly knock five ‘man of the match’ awards in a single Premiership rugby season.
Also notable are the two non-capped Quins props named.
Will Collier has played less than 30 minutes in total this season as a sub since getting back to full fitness only in the last three weeks, after being on the injured list since October.
Kyle Sinckler, a youngster of 21, has impressed everyone as a potential future England international since being thrown in the deep end by Quins of necessity at the back end of last year.
The extraordinary aspect of his promotion is that he’s still only a Quins academy player and not in our official playing squad!
As a Quins fan, I’d normally be getting very excited indeed in these circumstances – save for the fact that the England tour this summer is to New Zealand, which in world terms is both the most rugby-obsessed country of all and without doubt the most intimidating place to tour.