England opt for evolution over revolution
January 9, 2013
Calum Clark has shone for Northampton since his return from suspension © PA Photos
England's first match of the 2013 Six Nations is now under a month away and Stuart Lancaster has already got the ball rolling after he unveiled the new elite player squad on Wednesday. There will always be people that are disappointed and they might feel that their favourites should have been picked but it's a nice squad and you have a good mix from around the clubs.
There is a lot to be optimistic about, especially after the New Zealand match, and the players will all want to be part of that team. It's a huge start for England against Scotland on February 2 as everyone will have seen their win over the All Blacks and will have witnessed their huge physicality at the breakdown. Their opposition will now be streetwise as to how Lancaster wants his team to play and the other teams in the Six Nations will look to match them all over the pitch. England will now have to put in consistent performances to prove that the win over the Kiwis was not just a one-off.
He has opted to keep the faith with four of the players who turned out against the Kiwis, perhaps most notably Joe Launchbury. He is looking exceptional at the moment and I don't think anyone can remember him making a mistake this season. He is a quality player and he will create a really nice combination with Geoff Parling in the second-row, if that is the way that Lancaster goes. The pair are in good form and the onus is now on Courtney Lawes to rediscover his best form after his lengthy lay-off.
It was the inclusion of Lawes' Northampton team-mate Calum Clark in the EPS that will perhaps raise the most eyebrows. I am not hugely surprised that Stuart's brought him back into the squad and I am not sure how much significance you can read into the fact that he seems to have been named as a lock. He can play there, as can his team-mate Lawes, but if the pair of them were in the same team, then I would expect to see Lawes in the second-row and Clark in the back-row. The headlines surrounding Clark will be to do with the ban he served but I have been really impressed by how he has conducted himself. He has got his head down and he is a better player for the ban. Before that incident against Leicester, he was, on occasions a loose cannon, but I think he's learnt his lesson and he will be a really good option.
And with question marks surrounding Tom Croft's fitness, Clark could possibly get his chance at some point. Croft's Tigers coach Richard Cockerill has made it pretty clear that Croft can only play one-week-on-one-week-off but his inclusion shows his quality and just how highly regarded he is held by the coaching team.
Elsewhere in the EPS, Gloucester's Billy Twelvetrees has got the nod in place of Anthony Allen and I really feel for Allen. He is one of the stars of the Premiership and in terms of what he brings to his team, he is the glue that holds Leicester together. The criticism that Toby Flood receives in an England shirt is not there when he plays for Leicester and perhaps that is due to him having Allen outside him at No.12.
Anthony Allen is unlucky to be demoted to the Saxons © PA Photos
There is no hiding the fact that England's problem area is the centre axis and I think that Allen could have offered an option at inside centre with Manu Tuilagi outside him. But having said that, Twelvetrees, who I know from my time at Leicester, and his Gloucester team-mate Burns have been great this season and the pair have all the attributes needed to become really good international players.
Lancaster also opted to bring in David Strettle and James Haskell. Regarding Strettle, I do feel for Charlie Sharples, who has dropped to the Saxons, but we saw Strettle on ESPN against Northampton and he played really well in that game and at his best, he can unlock most defences. You can see why he has been given another go. There is a lot of healthy competition for him so he will need to be at his best - you look at the Saxons and you've got Tom Biggs, Kyle Eastmond and of course Christian Wade all there so they will be snapping at his heels.
Those who have dropped to the Saxons, like Sharples and Allen, will feel disgruntled but it is important to remember that they haven't been discarded from England forever but it's just part of the evolution of the squad and people will come and go. And the Saxons selection is a really promising group of players.
There is always a lot of excitement in the Saxons team because you have got all the rising talent coming through and I suppose the question is just when these guys will be ready. There is lots of attacking talent in there - the likes of Wade and Kyle Eastmond - but these guys still make mistakes for their club so it is about adding to their learning process and making sure they are ready for Test-match level rather than hyping them up only for them to fail on their debut. They have the natural attributes and they have big futures in the game but this is the next stage in their development in what they hope will be their path to the senior squad.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN