Stuart Lancaster’s England Elite Player Squad for the forthcoming Six Nations suggests the work of a man who hasn’t got time to hang around. That’s perhaps not too surprising. The England Interim Head Coach may quite literally not be hanging around for a long time, given that there are no guarantees from the Union that the job will ever be his on a full time basis. But there’s no doubt that the man whose regular day job is RFU Head Of Elite Player Development has been bold and brave with his 32-man selection. There are a whopping 15 changes from the August 2011 squad that former Team Manager Martin Johnson selected for World Cup duty and the sound of brush bristles sweeping clean can clearly be heard. Gone are a number of cast-iron squad regulars. And while Lancaster has been at pains to point out that the door to international rugby is never shut, I’ll eat a full-size rugby ball if we ever see the likes of Mike Tindall, Shontayne Hape, Riki Flutey, Mark Cueto and Nick Easter wearing the famous white shirt again. These stout yeomen and long-standing servants of the English cause have been replaced by a new generation of young talent that has been earnings its stripes in the domestic Aviva Premiership – and causing a stir along the way. Saracens centres Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell, Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples, Harlequins prop Joe Marler and Northampton Number 8 Calum Clark have all shown that they have talent and Lancaster has bravely given them their head as England try to banish memories of a tough World Cup campaign with a new-look squad.
Of course it’s heartening to see a coach who’s prepared to be brave, who understands the importance of rugby’s natural four-year cycle between World Cups and who’s prepared to take risks in the pursuit of excellence. Lancaster has made a big statement and he’s been applauded for it in all quarters of the English media. But it’s easy to pat the guy on the back right now. What will be harder to do will be to support his vision if things start to unravel during the forthcoming Six Nations. Let’s face it, English newspaper journalists don’t exactly have a reputation for fidelity when things don’t go well, do they? And while we all hope that these young players step up to the plate and deliver, the dusty corridors of international rugby are littered with players who were seen as star performers in their domestic championship, yet who found the step up to international level to be a bridge too far. You want recent English examples? Easy. How about Tom Varndell, Anthony Allen, Tom Voyce, Dan Hipkiss, Shane Geraghty, Mathew Tait, Lesley Vainikolo, Magnus Lund? All of these players were tipped for greatness and yet somehow never quite managed to establish themselves as regular international performers.
While all pros will tell you that the gap between international and club rugby is constantly narrowing, there’s still a massive difference between the two when it comes to the profile – and particularly the pressure – that goes with the international game. It may well be true that a top Heineken Cup match can be as fast, furious and technically demanding as a full international encounter. But there’s still a big difference in terms of expectation. International rugby still demands a lot more of a player in terms of his big game mentality. And the only way to find out if a player can cope is to throw him in there and give him a few games to see if he really is made of the right stuff. Consistently performing to a high level in front of 70 or 80 thousand people when you’re carrying the expectations of an entire nation on your shoulders is a level of pressure you simply don’t experience in club rugby. Owen Farrell has been masterful for Saracens, displaying impressive maturity for a 20 year old. But the real acid test will be to see if he can perform with the same level of composure when international victory is at stake.
Of course I’m an England fan, so I’m crossing fingers and toes and everything else in the hope that Lancaster gets a higher than average percentage of successes. But the odds are stacked against him in the light of previous experiences.
Let’s be careful here, though. This isn’t a call to give a player 80 minutes on which we’ll judge his entire international potential. We as fans – and especially we as journalists – need to be patient. The only way of knowing who’s got the right stuff is by seeing them perform five or six times before making a definitive decision. The problem is that in the world of top level sport, patience is something that’s all too often seen to be in short supply. Lancaster has already made a bold statement by giving youth its head. Now we need to be equally brave while natural selection takes its course.