England coach Stuart Lancaster has named his final 31-man World Cup squad with a few surprise selections and a number of glaring omissions.
Outside of the headline-grabbing Sam Burgess inclusion and Danny Cipriani omission, Lancaster opted to omit several experienced players including hooker Dylan Hartley, Lions prop Alex Corbisiero, centre Luther Burrell, winger Chris Ashton and number 8 Nick Easter, amongst others.
Lancaster’s side will face Ireland in their final warm-up game at Twickenham on September 5th before England return to Twickenham just 13 days later for their World Cup opener against Fiji on September 18th.
With an original squad of 50, Lancaster will now have his final squad of 31 but it is not necessarily his strongest with a number of notable omissions. We assess the England coach’s decisions and the strength and depth of his squad here.
Kieran Brookes (Northampton Saints, 10 caps)
Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers, 51 caps)
Joe Marler (Harlequins, 32 caps)
Mako Vunipola (Saracens, 22 caps)
David Wilson (Bath Rugby, 43 caps)
The omission of Alex Corbisiero is somewhat of a surprise here with Lancaster opting to go with Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler and Kieran Brookes instead of the Lions prop. On his day, Corbisiero is one of the more powerful loosehead scrummagers in world rugby but recently he has struggled to regain fitness and has struggled with sciatic pain.
Corbisiero was not included in England’s final warm up game against France, with Marler, Cole, Vunipola and Wilson all playing that game and all gaining selection while Brookes started in the previous game at Twickenham. Wasps prop Matt Mullan also misses out here.
Jamie George (Saracens, 1 cap)
Rob Webber (Bath Rugby, 13 caps)
Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers, 23 caps)
Hartley is obviously the big omission here and although the Northampton Saints hooker has had his fair share of disciplinary issues, he is the clear-cut first choice hooker in English rugby and his omission may be a decision that Lancaster and his coaching staff could come to regret.
A decent ball-carrier and stout defender, who is very solid at the set-piece, Hartley will be missed in the English front row with converted centre Tom Youngs struggling mightily at the line-out. Youngs has played 23 times for England but has proven to be just as ill-disciplined as Hartley despite playing significantly less minutes during this year’s Six Nations, as Youngs ranked among the most penalised players in the whole tournament.
Luke Cowan-Dickie also misses out here despite a breakout season with Exeter, with Saracens’ Jamie George being preferred as England’s third choice hooker.
George Kruis (Saracens, 8 caps)
Joe Launchbury (Wasps, 23 caps)
Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, 39 caps)
Geoff Parling (Exeter Chiefs, 24 caps)
No real surprises here with George Kruis getting the nod over David Attwood, who was a part of England’s struggling line-out in the Stade De France over the weekend. Lancaster saw enough from Kruis in England’s win over France at Twickenham the week before, with Attwood failing to impress the England coaching staff in two appearances off the bench.
Launchbury, Lawes and Parling were fairly straight forward choices here but England still have a lot of issues surrounding the set-piece that they must iron out. Ed Slater and Mario Itoje also miss out after being apart of Lancaster’s original plans.
James Haskell (Wasps, 60 caps)
Ben Morgan (Gloucester Rugby, 28 caps)
Chris Robshaw (captain, Harlequins, 38 caps)
Billy Vunipola (Saracens, 18 caps)
Tom Wood (Northampton Saints, 37 caps)
Nick Easter is the big casualty here with Lancaster sticking to his strategy of only selecting two specialists per position with Billy Vunipola and Ben Morgan gaining selection over the 36-year-old Easter. Lancaster was admittedly disappointed to reveal to Easter that he had not made the cut with Easter initially looking like the favourite to back up Billy Vunipola.
The English coach opted to go with Gloucester Number 8 Ben Morgan instead, with Morgan showing Lancaster enough in 40 minutes of play against France at Twickenham and during a training match at Bagshot on Wednesday to warrant selection.
Meanwhile, Tom Wood will provide cover for flankers James Haskell and Chris Robshaw with the stand-in skipper covering both sides of the scrum from the bench. Wood’s selection was pretty straight forward with his bench spot only really being challenged by Calum Clark who did himself no favours being sin binned in England’s first warm-up game.
Former captain Tom Croft was also a longshot after being invited to train with the squad but his selection was always an outside chance after dislocating his shoulder earlier this season.
Danny Care (Harlequins, 52 caps)
Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens, 22 caps)
Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers, 48 caps)
No surprises here really. Lancaster chose not to follow in the footsteps of Australian coach Michael Cheika, who only selected two specialist scrum-halves as Danny Care and Richard Wigglesworth will battle it out as to who will be Ben Youngs’ back-up.
Care has the advantage having started and provided cover in the warm-up games while Wigglesworth backed up Youngs in this year’s Six Nations. This writer expects Youngs to be the clear cut first-choice starter with Care to provide spark, flair and energy off the bench. Northampton’s Lee Dickson will provide cover in case anything should happen to the aforementioned pair, having been named in Lancaster’s original 50-man squad.
Owen Farrell (Saracens, 30 caps)
George Ford (Bath Rugby, 12 caps)
Danny Cipriani misses out but was always a distant third as Farrell and Ford go head-to-head to lay their claim as to who should be England’s starting number 10.
A British and Irish Lion and a former IRB Player of the Year nominee, Farrell was England’s clear first-choice number 10 for the last couple of seasons but a knee injury ruled him out of the entire Six Nations campaign, opening up the door to incumbent George Ford.
While Stephen Meyler and Cipriani were briefly considered right up until the squad announcement, this was only ever going to be a two horse race with Cipriani’s best hope as a third choice fly-half at the expense of a third choice scrum-half, or as a utility elsewhere in the backline.
Brad Barritt (Saracens, 22 caps)
Sam Burgess (Bath Rugby, 1 cap)
Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby, 12 caps)
Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs, 1 cap)
Sam Burgess is obviously the big surprise here, displacing Luther Burrell from the squad with the latter being England’s first choice centre for the last two seasons. Burgess impressed many in England’s win over France with his hard running, hard-hitting, crash and bash style of play working to great effect against the French.
Burgess’ centre partner that day, Henry Slade, also earned a spot in Lancaster’s squad after an impressive debut against France and a breakout season with Exeter. Elliot Daly, Kyle Eastmond and Billy Twelvetrees all miss out and while Daly and Eastmond may well be considered for future representation, neither player were involved in the warm-up matches and as a result were always long shots.
Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi was also ruled out after a string of off-field incidents with the most recent incident involving the Samoan-born centre assaulting a female police officer.
Mike Brown (Harlequins, 38 caps)
Alex Goode (Saracens, 18 caps)
Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby, 15 caps)
Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs, 9 caps)
Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, 10 caps)
England possess one of the most dangerous and exciting back threes in all of international rugby with Mike Brown, Jonny May, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson genuine match-winners on any given day. While all four have been exposed at certain times during their brief international careers, they do possess the speed, agility and ability to find the line that all legitimate world-class rugby finishers have.
Brown was a certain choice at full-back and while many feel that Cipriani should have been given more of a chance at 15, Lancaster has decided to go with Alex Goode as Brown’s deputy. Saracens duo Chris Ashton and David Strettle both miss the cut while Marland Yarde will also miss out having originally been named in Lancaster’s 50-man squad.
An embarrassment of riches for England at the back, while there are still many question marks over their set-piece and ability up front, not to mention who will be their first choice outhalf and centre pairing.
Lancaster’s squad becomes the youngest English World Cup squad in history with an average age of 26.2 years old, and while the England coach has stressed on multiple occasions that the squad will be in a good place for Japan 2019, it’s next month that the English public are concerned about, none more so than those who missed the cut.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena