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English Rugby
Spoilt for choice or a mass of mediocrity?
Richard Seeckts
October 17, 2013
Someone like Richard Wigglesworth has started the season well but cannot force his way into the England squad © PA Photos

The thrills of the opening round of Heineken Cup fixtures added weight to the conviction that a European club tournament must continue next year. The fans and the players love it. The bickering suits have a responsibility to sort it.

Defeat for Leicester, Harlequins and Northampton and uncomfortably tight wins for Saracens and Gloucester not have helped Stuart Lancaster pick his England squad, predominantly from those five clubs, for the November internationals.

Lancaster's options increased dramatically after the Cardiff debacle in March. What seemed a settled squad going into that potential Grand Slam game was shredded by Wales. The Lions tour and Lancaster's decision to rest five senior players from Argentina duty opened doors for others, several of whom shone against the seriously under strength Pumas. Spoilt for choice or ever muddier waters?

It can't have been easy finalising the squad of 34 announced this week, as debate raged over almost every position. It will be harder still to reach a match day squad of 23. Three candidates for full-back, half a dozen for the wings, no shortage of possibilities to replace the injured centres, four bids for fly-half, several for scrum-half while the two leading candidates for the captaincy are below their best form.

Places in the pack are almost as wide open, only Dan Cole being sure of getting a start at Twickenham. Geoff Parling, Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood probably will too, but then who will be captain?

So plentiful are the options, it is easy to pick a respectable England XV made up of players who didn't even make the senior squad: Tait, Strettle, Joseph, Geraghty, Monye, Ford, Wigglesworth, Mullan, Webber, Doran-Jones, Robson, Kruis, Clark, Fraser, Ewers.

The English Premiership strives to be the best in the world, boasting that it is impeccably observed and rigorously enforced salary cap makes it possible for any team to beat any other on a given day. Worcester's troubles notwithstanding, the talent is fairly widespread. This makes the league competitive, but doesn't help Lancaster build the best possible England team. The key player combinations rarely exist at both club and international level simultaneously, and the playmakers all have different styles.

The best England can achieve is a patchwork. Right now, the patches all look a worryingly similar shade of grey, for while there are worthy stalwarts at every turn, there is a distinct lack of genuine star quality. Where is the North, Halfpenny, McCaw, O'Connell of England? Who are the dead cert picks for all conditions?

English rugby now offers what its detractors, often unfairly, have identified all too frequently in the past, a mass of mediocrity. To confuse this with an embarrassment of riches, as some see Lancaster's situation, is pure folly. The All Blacks don't do that.

That the clubs providing most of England's squad all struggled in the first round of Heineken matches indicates the Premiership is not as strong as many thought. The Celtic nations, each selecting mainly from no more than four domestic sides, benefit from more concentrated pools of talent, which goes part way to explaining why the Scarlets made chumps of Harlequins on Saturday, and Wales did likewise to England in March.

The selection debate is great for the pub, but two years out from a home World Cup the 'tough choices' stage is a poor position to be in. At least half the World Cup team should pick itself by now.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Richard Seeckts' rugby career consisted of one school match where he froze on the wing and despite no substitutes being available he was withdrawn from the game at half-time for mocking the opposition's line-out calls. Thereafter Richard and the sport agreed active participation was not the way ahead, but that has not prevented him from avidly writing about and watching the game. He now contributes his random observations to the Crooked Feed blog on ESPNscrum.com