Stuart Lancaster is having a pretty tough time of it at the moment. After announcing his much anticipated Rugby World Cup training squad last month, he is already two players down, potentially three, and for the most unexpected reasons.
First there was the loss of Manu Tuilagi, and rightly so, after his conviction for assault on two female police officers. Then just last week Danny Cipriani, who had a storming game against the Barbarians, may have thrown away his Rugby World Cup dreams after being arrested on suspicion of drink-driving. Cipriani now has to wait to hear his fate when he reports back to the police in August. And last, but by no means least, Dylan Hartley who was dropped from the squad following a four week ban for striking with the head in the Aviva Premiership semi-final match against Saracens.
For me, although the loss of Tuilagi and possibly Cipriani too, is a huge blow, it is Hartley’s ban which is the most significant. Ironically, it is Jamie George, who clashed with Hartley in that match, who takes his place in the Rugby World Cup training squad. Hartley maybe volatile, but he is so consistent in the set pieces, and he brings a real physical edge to the team. He is ferocious in defence and at the breakdown, and he also has very good attacking skills. Hartley also has a very strong mentality that has earned him his England spot over the last seven years.
Although Hartley has served more suspensions that most, 54 to be exact, I know he has been working hard with renowned psychologist Dr Steve Peters, who has worked previously with Uruguay footballer Luis Suarez. Unfortunately though, it hasn’t served him well this time as he has once again paid a high price for his red mist moments and his World Cup dreams have gone up in smoke.
In losing Hartley, Tuilagi and with the question mark hanging over Cipriani’s head, it will inevitably affect the England squad. I know from personal experience that losing key players prior to massive tournaments, whether it is through injuries or bans, is hugely disruptive. We lost England centre Claire Allan just days before the start of the 2010 Rugby World Cup to injury, and there is no doubt that affected the team dynamics, and we didn’t recover fully from it. Also, you just have to look at how the England Women’s team went from being World Champions to getting their worst ever finish in this year’s Six Nations after the abrupt departures of coaches Gary Street and Graham Smith just weeks before that tournament. These moments do matter.
Looking forward though, and although Dylan is a fantastic player, he is one cog in a big wheel and there is still a huge amount of talent in the England squad. Tom Youngs is a British & Irish Lion and that experience will be integral to this Rugby World Cup campaign. Youngs is great in open play but he does need to improve his consistency in the set-piece which will be key going into the latter stages of the tournament. Luke Cowan-Dickie is a fresh, exciting talent. He is athletic, versatile across the park, fearless and great in the line-out, while Jamie George is a grafter and works hard around the pitch so, if selected, will do the job required of him. Throw in Rob Webber too and England still have a decent pool of talent.
If Cipriani misses out, although he is no doubt a dazzling talent, I am confident that George Ford and Owen Farrell can shine even more brightly on the world stage, while this year’s Six Nations underlined that England do have some exciting talent in the mid-field, even without Tuilagi. Lancaster has just got to get that recipe right.
For more information on the RWC visit: http://www.rugbyworldcup.com/