England’s 2015 Rugby World Cup squad is, and was always going to be, more suited to 2019.
When Stuart Lancaster opted to cull the over 30s from the group when he took over back at the start of the process, a decision that was pretty unanimously backed, that immediately became the likely scenario. Unfortunately 2015, not 2019, was the World Cup England were hosting. Then, to compound that slight difficultly, a group was selected that was destined to create a ‘disaster’ scenario for one side.
Whether England should have done better despite all of that is one for debate and plenty of opinion, what probably is not though is that this group or one that closely resembles it is going to be a much bigger threat come 2019, when they will have an average age and number of caps that matches those rough benchmarks that it is said a World Cup winning side needs.
Before the tournament there were rumbles that South Africa had won in ’95 without matching those requirements. That was a ridiculous comparison. South Africa winning the World Cup in 1995 is one of the most unique and special achievements and occasions in any sport.
So, rather than all of the doom and gloom of the past few days, we thought we would have a stab at picking a side for that 2019 Rugby World Cup – and a coaching group too. It is picked with them same balance as the 2015 squad positionally. A warning – there are a fair few bolters.
Potential England Squad for 2019 (31)
(Player, Club, International Caps, Age at next RWC)
Kieran Brookes (Northampton Saints, 15, 29)
Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers, 55 +3 Lions, 32)
Paul Hill (Northampton Saints, 0, 24)
Joe Marler (Harlequins, 36, 29)
Mako Vunipola (Club, Saracens, Caps, 26 +3 for the Lions, Age, 28)
Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, 1, 26)
Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints, 66, 33)
Jack Walker (Yorkshire Carnegie, 0, 23)
Charlie Ewels (Bath, 0, 24)
Maro Itoje (Saracens, 0, 24)
Joe Launchbury (Wasps, 27, 28)
Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, 42, 30)
Jack Clifford (Harlequins, 0, 26)
Matt Kvesic (Gloucester, 2, 27)
Ben Morgan (Gloucester, 31, 30)
Chris Robshaw (Harlequins, 42, 33)
Billy Vunipola (Saracens, 21, 26)
Danny Care (Harlequins, 52, 32)
Dan Robson (Wasps, 0, 27)
Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers, 52 +2 Lions, 30)
George Ford (Bath, 16, 26)
Owen Farrell (Saracens, 34 +1 Lions, 28)
Elliot Daly (Wasps, 0, 26)
Jonathan Joseph (Bath, 15, 28)
Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs, 1, 26)
Manu Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers, 25 +1 Lions, 28)
Nathan Earle (Saracens, 0, 25)
Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs, 9, 26)
Matt Protheroe (Gloucester, 0, 23)
Christian Wade (Wasps, 1, 28)
Anthony Watson (Bath, 14, 25)
Stuart Lancaster – Director of Rugby/Head Coach
Wayne Smith – Head Coach/Attack Coach
Andy Farrell – Defence Coach
Graham Rowntree – Forwards Coach
There is plenty to debate, probably more so in the backs than in the forwards. There are seventeen players who are part of the current Rugby World Cup Squad, a further four who were part of the wider training squad, two players who would have been in the squad but for their discipline, and Jack Clifford who played against the Barbarians earlier in the year and Christian Wade, who won his sole cap back in 2013.
Perhaps the most unlikely selection is that of Matt Protheroe at full back. The young man, who only turns 19 at the weekend, is one of the rising stars of the game though and with Gloucester already considering him a part of their main squad, he is perhaps worth the punt.
The point of the squad though is about supplementing the experience that should carry from the current squad with top quality players who are breaking through, particularly given that England have two squads of Junior World Championship players who are beginning to break through into their club 1st XVs.
Prop sees four of the current crop retained, all four will be of a perfectly good age for props and only Dan Cole will be over thirty. U20 winner Paul Hill also comes in. There are others youngsters who are likely to push too, such as Bath’s Beno Obano and Northampton Saints’ Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, or indeed Saracens’ Biyi Alo.
Hooker sees Dylan Hartley retained, he will be 33 but that should bring with it maturity and experience. Luke Cowan-Dickie ought to be over his lineout woes by than, and we all know how good he is in the loose. Jack Walker is a name that many more will know over the coming years.
Second row stars Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes have no reason not to hold onto their shirts for the next four years. Maro Itoje will certainly put them under pressure though, and Bath’s Charlie Ewels is following the same trajectory. The likes of George Kruis will continue to push.
The back row looks like it is going to be a sticky area for a long time. Who are the real fetchers out there? Hopefully Matt Kvesic will develop and he makes the cut. The likes of Will Allman and Lewis Ludlum at Northampton Saints are others who may develop into the fetchers England need.
Chris Robshaw remains, but he is there as a 6. He is an inspirational figure and a top class player. His experiences now should help a great deal over the next four years. Billy Vunipola and Ben Morgan remain but Morgan will perhaps be under pressure from Harlequins’ James Chisholm and others. Chsiholm’s teammate, and 2013 JWC winning captain, Jack Clifford makes the cut and can cover the entire back row.
Scrum half was actually very tricky. The current crop will all be at or beyond thirty, while the current youngsters do not seem to be pushing too hard yet. Dan Robson is perhaps coming closest so makes the cut but hopefully the likes of Callum Braley, Henry Taylor, Tom Whiteley, Will Homer, Jack Maunder, and Stuart Townsend get their chances of the next couple of years with their clubs.
The midfield was as tricky is at is now. There is no reason why George Ford and Owen Farrell should not remain the fly halves of choice, they are superb players. By then though Henry Slade will surely be a regular fly half at Exeter too though, so may need consideration. The answer is probably to include all three and to remember than both Farrell and Slade are genuine centre options – both as 12s at that point.
Outside centre was easy, Jonathan Joseph and Elliot Daly must be there. The fourth was harder. With that pair as your 13s, and Farrell and Slade as ball playing 12s, you probably want a heavy hitter as the other option, and you probably want him as a 12.
I have given Manu Tuilagi the benefit of the doubt that he can stay fit, keep his discipline, and learn the job of stepping in a place over the next four years. He will after all only be 28. There are other options though, Ollie Devoto is a big man and a ball player, Sam Hill will run through brick walls, even Sam Burgess, if he stays in the game, should be an expert by then. If he plays centre.
Other longer term options might be Bath’s Max Clark, Northampton’s Tom Stephenson, Wasps’ Conor Dolan, or Saracens’ Nick Tompkins.
The back three was also tricky. Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell are almost guaranteed and can cover the wing and full back. Christian Wade in four year’s time will still be young enough and quick enough and by then will perhaps have been able to address the issues that management see in his game.
The other two are very open positions. An out and out full back would be nice but it is difficult to pin anyone other than a complete youngster down, which obviously makes them very much a bolter call. Protheroe is that, and even though he is also a fly half option, full back is how to get into this squad. Earle is less of a bolter, he certainly has the quality to blossom over the next few years.
Coaching wise, there appear to be two problems with the current set up – selection mistakes, and an over emphasis on defence and therefore defensive players over attack and attacking players. The two are probably related.
My view is that the current coaches should stay. That said, the above issues must be addressed. Stuart Lancaster has created something that the players appear to buy into and despite going out early, they have the foundations of a side that is heading to where they should be in 2019. He also knows the players right along the pathway and would be the ideal man for integrating the new players into this squad.
The selection issues and overly defensive nature of selection and attitude do seem to be emerging, in part down to perhaps too much Andy Farrell influence, allegedly. That is not necessarily his fault though. Look at the way they set up at matches, Lancaster, Farrell, and Rowntree sit upstairs, Catt is the water boy. That suggest a pecking order where attack and skills are at the bottom of the pile. They need to be at the top. It is perhaps not an over influence of Farrell so much as the pecking order is wrong.
The question is, without a personnel change, can that pecking order and emphasis change? Without knowing the characters it is difficult to say, but generally it is hard for a group of people to redefine their dynamic without some personnel change.
Therefore the best solution seems to bring in someone such as Wayne Smith, or even a Brian Ashton type, for Catt. It needs to be someone quite dominant, who can walk into the room and shake up the dynamic and the pecking order. It could even be that they come in as Head Coach and Lancaster become Director of Rugby, in an Aviva Premiership style set up. Farrell and Rowntree are highly regarded globally and should stay, the squad just needs an attacking guru who is able to exert enough influence.
Of course this could all look like total rubbish in four years time, but it is always worth having a bit of fun and speculation.
What do you think of the squad and who would you pick? Get in touch on @FifteenRugbyXV – let’s spark the debate!