It was clear while watching England Saxons victory over the Irish Wolfhounds on Friday that a number of players on both sides were playing for places in their respective senior squads. Unfortunately a scrappy game wasn’t the best showcase for the talents on the pitch. That said, I want to pick out a few key players from the Saxons side who I feel deserve further comment.
Henry Slade – Playing at Fly Half instead of his more favoured Centre position, Slade bossed the game well for the Saxons, and scored 11 first half points to put Saxons in control of the game early. He’s been called up to the Senior squad as cover for Kyle Eastmond, and Inside Centre seems like a better fit for a full international debut. Unlikely to start against Wales, as Stuart Lancaster will probably choose to go with a more tried and trusted (some may say boring) partnership in Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell.
Joe Simpson – Came on as a second half substitute for Saxons captain Lee Dickson and impressed with probing darts around the breakdown, and moved the ball quickly from the back of the rucks. As mentioned on commentary at the time, he may not be the second best Scrum Half in England, but he might be the best replacement Scrum Half in terms of impact against tired legs in the last half an hour of games. Not in the senior squad for the six nations, but probably next on Lancaster’s list if injury were to hit at yet another position.
Sam Burgess – A quiet game for the sport’s most talked about new arrival. Like many of his games for Bath this year, Burgess was solid enough, but in attack his biggest value was as a decoy runner. Based on what we’ve seen this season out of Burgess, and the fact that he was a forward in his time in Rugby League, it seems a more natural fit for him to move to the forwards in Union too; probably at Blind Side Flanker or Number 8. It seems that Burgess has been put into the centres with one thing in mind – playing for England at the World Cup in 2015. The adjustment to playing in the back row, and the intricacies of the break down and the lineouts – something Burgess himself has admitted he doesn’t understand – will naturally take longer, and that’s time England don’t have. There also doesn’t appear to be a spot for him to break into the England back row quite as easily as in the Centre where he can either partner with Tuilagi, or cover for any injuries sustained. Stuart Lancaster has included Sam in his senior squad, ostensibly to accelerate his development, but it all feels a bit forced. I hope the pressure of necessity and expectation don’t hinder the development of a genuinely nice guy, or ultimately force him to regret his decision to come across to Union in the first place. It would be an unhealthy precedent for the game to set, that failing to make the grade in your first year means you should never have bothered trying.
Henry Thomas – A strong scrummaging performance will come as no surprise to those who have seen Thomas, Nick Auterac and Ross Batty come on for Bath in the second half and dominate tiring opposition front rows all season long. That Thomas was able to play to this high standard for almost the full 80, and more than held his own in the loose as well, is a positive sign for both Stuart Lancaster, and Bath Rugby head coach Mike Ford. Thomas fully deserves his call up to the senior squad as cover for Bath teammate Davey Wilson.
Matt Kvesic – a very impressive performance from the young Gloucester Flanker. Did everything you’d want from your number 7, tackled hard, won turnovers and made a nuisance of himself at almost every breakdown. Still has a tendency to give away a few penalties, but the best Open Sides often do, with Richie McCaw the prime example. Unfortunately for Kvesic, he doesn’t quite have McCaw’s reputation yet, and so referees are happy to keep penalising him for borderline calls. On this performance he’ll consider himself unlucky to have slipped behind Calum Clark and the fit again Tom Croft in the England pecking order, but clearly has a bright future ahead of him. He needs to go back to Gloucester, continue to perform at a high level and make it impossible for Lancaster to leave him out of the World Cup squad.