Does England waste talent? It’s something fans of the Red Rose have been asking themselves for decades and it’s something a number of high-profile names in the game have accused the country of doing, including World Cup-winning All Blacks coach Graham Henry.
A while back this writer put together an England ‘Wasted Talent’ XV made up of players who were either not given extended runs for the national side or who lost opportunities due to injury problems. Of course you can argue injuries are just unfortunate, but how much does the often attritional nature of the Premiership and England’s style of rugby contribute to this misfortune?
Moreover, Pundit Arena writer Alan Drumm recently produced his ‘I Can’t Believe They Were Capped For England’ XV and it’s created something of a furore amongst our readers. Were these players part-and-parcel of a system not producing quality internationals or were they unfairly cast aside too early?
In the whole of English rugby history there have been 313 one-cap players. Since 1997 when Woodward took over as England head coach there have been 26 one-cap individuals. From 1871 to 1997 on average 2.25 players each year were given one opportunity to play for the national side and no more. In contrast, the average for the Woodward to Jones eras is 1.37 and that includes players like Ellis Genge and Calum Clark who could well go on to earn more caps. At the very least, players are not tossed aside after one match.
The one-cap players from 1997 to 2016 are as follows: Geoff Appleford, Scott Benton, Matt Cairns, Dom Chapman, Calum Clark, Alex Codling, Darren Crompton, Ollie Devoto, Ellis Genge, Joe Gray, Steve Hanley, Jason Hobson, Michael Horak, Mark Mapletoft, Barrie John Mather, Stephen Myler, Chris Pennell, Richard Pool-Jones, Stuart Potter, Semesa Rokoduguni, Joe Simpson, Ben Skirving, Tommy Taylor, Mark van Gisbergen, Hugh Vyvyan, Christian Wade.
Now, let’s consider some of England’s ill-fated summer tours of yesteryear. When Clive Woodward took a very green-looking squad out to Australia and New Zealand in 1998, missing a whole-host of rested or injured front-line players, it was not a shock to see the side absolutely wiped out in all their games, with the 76 – 0 scoreline still stinging every English rugby supporter. Woodward took a whole host of uncapped players on the ‘Tour of Hell’, out of necessity in some ways but also to experiment and it was ultimately a disaster.
Although the likes of Josh Lewsey and Jonny Wilkinson went on to recover and become world-class players, for some like Richard Pool-Jones, Dom Chapman and Stuart Potter it would be the only chance they would get to wear the Red Rose. That tour scarred those players and severely damaged their development.
Similarly, when Brian Ashton and England headed off to South Africa in 2007 a number of injured and rested players’ absence severely weakened the squad, as well as the Heineken Cup final featuring both Leicester and Wasps taking place six days before the first test causing England huge logistical issues. Indeed, no Tigers or Wasps players were selected in either test as a result.
Therefore when you think of the likes of Matt Cairns, Darren Crompton and Ben Skirving as England players, they were only put in that position because of injuries and politics between club and country.
When you start to think of the England players with only a handful of caps, more often than not they were there to do a job in the short term and did so successfully. In that sense then those players are not ‘wasted’ but have rather fulfilled their potential.
However, there have been a number of individuals who arguably could have done more given time on the pitch and in training. Anthony Allen is one such example: one of the most consistent inside centres in the Premiership with both Gloucester and Leicester, he should have been given more chances. Yes, injuries played their part but names like Shontayne Hape, Toby Flood, Riki Flutey, Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell were all provided with more opportunities to shine.
Similarly, Clive Woodward saw enough in Ollie Smith to take him on the 2005 Lions tour, yet Smith never quite kicked on to be the player he could have been. He drifted between positions and eventually left Leicester to head for France before returning to England with Harlequins. It’s difficult to decide who is to blame for this lack of development, but most likely it can be apportioned between England, Leicester and the player himself equally.
Fast forward to the future and things are looking so much more rosier for England. As I covered in a previous article, England is now producing young and exciting talent that is capable of taking on the very best and winning. More and more individuals are going from U20s to club to country, or even straight from age-grade level to test rugby.
If you can argue that England did waste talent, it seems less likely that they do now. Some voices may cry ‘Cipriani’, but he is up against George Ford and Owen Farrell, two incredibly talented fly-halves. If any talent is ‘wasted’ now it is because of genuinely increasing player depth.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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