Lancaster rolls the dice
Tom Hamilton at Twickenham
January 9, 2014
Stuart Lancaster - juggler of six-sided cubes of destiny © Getty Images
In the board game Risk, there are a number of variables which can stifle or help plans to achieve world domination. Battles are decided on the roll of a dice, educated gambles taken all with a view to eliminating other players.
The chosen training squad for the Six Nations has seen Stuart Lancaster juggle those six-sided cubes of destiny and trust his instincts, a mindset built from years of working in and around English rugby, with just 20 games standing between now and the 2015 World Cup.
Few know the country's young players better than he. For the five uncapped players included in the 35-man training squad, individually, potential has developed into consistent, dazzling ability in the Aviva Premiership but the Test stage is another level up.
No one is more aware of this than Lancaster. When he took over England following the 2011 World Cup that ended Martin Johnson's crop of players, Lancaster had to rebuild a team and instill a new culture within the elite squad. The five uncapped players will be thrown into an environment where pride in the shirt is paramount; mere talent is not enough in the Lancaster era, you have to buy into the credo also.
When Lancaster named his first squad back in the days when he was in the job on an interim basis, he made 15 changes from Johnson's last - Thursday's Elite Player Squad showed just one alteration with Toby Flood dropping out.
As Lancaster briefed the media in the Presidents Suite at Twickenham, you sensed he felt almost hurt by Flood's decision to turn his back on the English domestic set-up in favour of a move to France. For Lancaster, if a player is potentially unavailable for the 2015 World Cup, or might have just a few miles on the clock come that opening game, he is no good for the present.
While the EPS showed just one change - Lancaster kept injured players in the squad partly due to the convoluted arrangement surrounding player access - the training squad has a feeling of youthful exuberance with that quintet of uncapped players.
In the back three, Anthony Watson has experienced a remarkable season at Bath. He did well against Leicester at the weekend and has a style reminiscent of Israel Folau - even when Folau is running at top speed, he looks calm and as if he is gliding. Jack Nowell, who has played just 16 top flight matches, has also done enough to get a chance.
Both were in the Under-20 side that won the Junior World Championship in the summer, their elevation into Test reckoning is all part of the Lancaster master plan for English rugby, you feel.
George Ford is another who has paid his dues in the age groups but is now progressing at a rate of knots at Bath. Luther Burrell is well-known to Lancaster, having cut his rugby teeth in and around Yorkshire, and Ed Slater is justly rewarded for his quiet, brutally effective brand of rugby in Leicester's second-row. Five uncapped players who are there purely on merit.
It is testament to Lancaster that despite having eight players out injured - a list that includes five British & Irish Lions - there is an excitement surrounding this crop of players. The five who are yet to experience Test rugby all have the 2019 World Cup in them, potentially even 2023, while his 35-man squad shows 11 players under 24. These are Lancaster's babes. He knows what they'll bring to the team but even he, the master planner, cannot guarantee how they will cope under the pressure of Test level rugby.
Lancaster takes inspiration from teams and individuals from history - no more so than General George S.Patton Jnr, who said: "Every man is scared in his first battle. If he says he's not, he's a liar." For Watson his first 'battle' is likely to come against France on February 1.
There is a feeling of urgency around this England side. Time has been given to building a culture and establishing effective pathways from youth rugby up to the elite squad. But with just 20 games until the start of the World Cup, now is the time for form and consistency.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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