Stuart Lancaster’s final squad announcement for the incoming World Cup drew raised eyebrows for a few wildcard selections and seclusions amongst the expected names of his 31 man squad.
As hosts of the tournament, he is out to make his biggest impression. After a fortnight long training camp and two friendlies against France, Lancasters mind is made up and he has lain his cards on the table.
One of the biggest questions leading up to his announcement was whether he would allow renegade fly half Danny Cipriani a chance at international redemption. After his impressive display in the 25-20 defeat to France last week in which he scored a try and playing a role in the lead up to Jonathan Joseph’s try, it seemed to many that the 27-year-old Sale Shark had significantly improved his chances of playing on the world’s stage.
In a move of sensibility rather than gamblers intuition, Stuart Lancaster has opted for the steady Owen Farrell, with Bath’s George Ford – who produced an excellent kicking display in France – filling the fly half options. Farrell’s domestic form with Saracens was uninspiring yet reassured as he oversaw a 4th place Saracens finish, followed by a rejuvenation with his boots and his hands in the play offs – with 16 points in the semi final, followed by a try and 13 more points with his boot in the final victory over Bath. This surge of points see him in the squad, but may not be enough to overhaul Ford, who’s dynamics on the pitch, and the creative edge he possesses along with his reliability with the boot may see Ford start ahead of Farrell at number 10.
Despite having only switched rugby codes at the tail end of November, Sam Burgess finds himself not only part of the squad, but a very realistic prospect for a starters berth. As much as Burgess was impressive in the match against France which culminated in a 19-14 victory for the Red Roses, there were aspects of his game which demonstrated he still has a learning curve to endure. His challenge on Morgan Parra while the Frenchman was in midair is testament to this. To have been picked for the squad whereas Luther Burrell – a centre so impressive for Northampton Saints and during the 2014 Six Nations – is left behind demonstrates a real gamble by Lancaster. Will Carling put the gamble into perspective by stating he couldn’t believe Burgess was regarded as one of England’s four best centres.
Admittedly, Lancaster is no stranger to gambles, having shaken up the root of England’s ailing squad after the departure of Martin Johnson in 2012., but Burrell was a centre who’s work rate, power, and speed as a combination formed a fearful partnership with Jonathan Joseph, as the pair demonstrated ably during the 2014 Six Nations. To leave him out is a huge blow to Burrell, and one Lancaster could regret, if Sam Burgess fails to step up to the likes of Australia and Wales.
Though Burgess has to contend with Henry Slade, Brad Barritt and Joseph for a place on the pitch. The latter two are both seasoned internationals in their own right which should secure the confidence of head coach Lancaster to give them starting berths, with Burgess seen as the wildcard option, brought in to tackle with ferocity as seen in his performance against Les Bleus.
While Burgess is in, he has pressured heaped onto his shoulders by those who want him to deliver. Not least his coach. Whether he will comes down to how much he has learned in the past 10 months.