Earlier this month, as a staging post on the way to the first round of Six Nations matches over the weekend of 1st and 2nd February, England head coach Stuart Lancaster named a long-form squad of 35 players.
It was bigger than normal because of the need to have cover firstly, for the unusually-large number of established and/or rising England stars on the injury list (e.g. Croft, Yarde, Wade, Tuilagi) who might recover in time to play some part in the tournament; and secondly, for those perfectly fit who might yet get injured in the three to four Premiership and Cup games to be played before the end of January. Rugby is like that.
The headlines were inevitably grabbed by the first-time inclusion of George Ford, the diminutive 20 year old Bath fly-half, who has been impressing this season after his move from Leicester Tigers in the summer. In a sense his promotion – at the expense of Toby Flood, who is leaving Leicester, probably for France – is slightly ironic as Ford only departed Welford Road because Flood was blocking his path to regular first team rugby.
I am a Ford fan. He had rugby pedigree – his father, the Bath coach, played top rugby league – and is a classic case of ‘an old head on young shoulders’, having already captained the England Under-20 team and, uniquely for an Englishman, been voted IRB Young (World) Player of the Year. In addition, in my view, in terms of skills sets, he is a superior all-round 10 to Owen Farrell, especially creatively. I’m not knocking Farrell per se – he’s worth his place in the squad and possesses a world class temperament – but, looking forward to the Rugby World Cup in 2015, for which at the moment in prospect England seem to lack flair and penetration behind the scrum, I’d rather see Ford at fly-half.
Quins’ Chris Robshaw has been re-appointed as England captain, a big vote of confidence by Lancaster. Since being recalled to the England team two years ago – his first cap was on tour in Argentina in 2009 – Robshaw has captained the team in all 19 test matches he’s played, missing just one through injury and two because he was given last summer off instead of going on the England tour. Sadly, because Chris is a great character and never fails to play his heart out, and even though I’m a Quins fan, I’m afraid I’m still in the ‘doubting Thomas’ camp as regards him being the best player available in the position he plays, flanker (or Number 7).
Yesterday, Lancaster also announced the England Saxons (second team) squad for the game against the Irish Wolfhounds on 25th January.
In some respects, this is a more interesting crop of players than the Six Nations group, because it must include some of those whom, the England coaches feel, might be bolters for next year’s Rugby World Cup squad.
For the benefit of National Rust readers, I am going to give a few tips on some of the most promising Saxons candidates.
Amongst the forwards, watch out in particular for Nathan Catt (the Bath prop) and back rowers Dave Ewers (Exeter) and Jamie Gibson (Leicester Tigers).
I’m delighted to see Quins Will Collier (prop), Dave Ward (hooker), Charlie Matthews (lock) and Luke Wallace (7) included: in my view, Wallace should already be in the full England squad, and it will be interesting to see how the others fare.
Collier is still a baby as props go, but has been holding down the Quins tight-head spot since the departure of James Johnston.
Ward is small, but has been playing out of his skin after arriving at the club from Championship team Cornish Pirates some 18 months ago – he’s won two Man of The Match awards in recent succession.
Finally, Matthews is definitely one for the future – he was the academy kid that Quins retained in preference to Joe Launchbury, who was then let go to Wasps, where he had a meteoric rise straight into the current England team.
Amongst the backs, two to look out for are Elliot Daly of Wasps – who has the X-factor and can play full back, wing or centre – and Sam Hill, the Exeter centre.
I first ‘spotted’ Hill three years ago when, on a filthy West Country night in torrential rain, as a school kid of only 18, he stood out like a beacon in Exeter’s thumping 20-point victory over Quins in the final of the (second team) ‘A’ League competition.
Coming closer to home – i.e. Quins matters – this Sunday will see the return from injury of Joe Gray (hooker) and Tom Williams (wing) to the bench for the away Heineken Cup clash with Scarlets.
Meanwhile we learn the disappointing news that Charlie Walker, the ‘new kid on the block’ at wing, who – though not yet the finished article – has been making great strides in Williams’ absence, is now out for up to ten weeks having had an operation on a ruptured pectoral muscle suffered last weekend.
In addition, the Daily Mail reported yesterday that Quins are letting go of 23-year old ex-academy winger Sam Smith, who has never let anyone down.
Apparently, he has been told he will not be offered a new contract, this possibly as a prelude to Quins potentially making a move for the currently-injured London Irish and England winger Marland Yarde, who has a big future ahead of him.
Let’s hope so!