The Gallagher Premiership cannot claim to have the best team in Europe playing in their division; that honour is reserved for the Pro14 and Leinster. And only one of its stars, Dan Biggar no less, breaks in the Top 10 list of Rugby’s highest-paid players. But what it can boast over any other league in the Northern Hemisphere, perhaps the world, is an outstanding depth of quality across the division.
World Rugby found that, in 2017, there were 2.1 million rugby players in England. That number far dwarfs any other union: Wales has 94,000; Ireland has 195,000; New Zealand has 155,000. The Gallagher Premiership is a direct beneficiary of this; with extensive players, funding and resources, the standard of the average league player is far beyond those in other leagues. These players come from a variety of nations from across the globe, but the English contingent remains the most significant contributor.
Consequently, England has a huge number of players to pick from, and these players are competing at an extremely high level. This fantastic depth across the pitch is the envy of other Unions, who often have to scrape together enough funding to expand their grassroots level, and tie down elite players to centralised contracts. When the national team is selected, the head coach has a vast pool of players to pick from- but might this present a problem as significant as its benefit?
Even when including the alarmingly significant injury list that has ballooned over the last few months, the competition for places in the national side is extremely fierce. The extremely high standard of the Premiership means that a swathe of players are playing exceptionally well for their respective clubs. Across any of the twelve teams, there are a number Englishmen battling it out for the selector’s spotlight.
Herein lies the problem. Because the playing pool is so large, and the range of talent available to Eddie Jones so enormous, consistency of selection is much harder to stick to. Jones clearly has players he trusts, and continues to pick them across some positions but, beyond that, the temptation to fluctuate between a variety of high-quality Premiership players from selection to selection is irresistible. There is often no time for new players to cut their teeth over a successive run of games and establish their international credentials.
Eddie Jones has given Test debuts to 26 players since he took over as England coach in November 2015. Of those 26, a select handful have gone on to be regular picks for Jones: Maro Itoje, Eliot Daly, Ben Te’o, Kyle Sinckler and Nathan Hughes. Only the first two, possibly three, are guaranteed starters. Even extending the timeframe to as early as 2014, only four others emerged as regular test-level players: Jack Nowell, George Kruis, Anthony Watson and George Ford.
Those are the most established international players; the list of players that have been brought into a camp or two, and played small parts across a series of international fixtures, is much larger. A huge number of these players have been playing to an extremely high standard for their respective Premiership sides, but have not yet made a lasting impact at international level. Henry Slade, Teimana Harrison and Alex Lozowski all initially spring to mind.
But in Alex Goode and Christian Wade, the problem may be at its most glaringly obvious. Alex Goode has 21 England caps, but nine came across the 2012 Autumn Internationals and 2013 Six Nations. You could make a reasonable case that Goode has been the Premiership’s best player this season, and yet he has never been granted a run of games to develop himself in the England set up. Of his last five caps, they are each separated by a large gap, whether from a World Cup warm-up to the dead rubber game against Uruguay, to a 2016 Six Nations appearance followed up by a game in the autumn against Fiji.
Recent rugby retiree Christian Wade has been dealt an even tougher hand; a lack of opportunities for England seems to have led to his decision to quit rugby altogether, to pursue a career in the NFL. His only senior cap was against Argentina in 2013 and, despite a significant injury lay-off until autumn 2014, he hasn’t been selected for England since. Since his one cap, he has scored 52 tries in the Premiership; if he saw his career out with Wasps, he would likely break Tom Varndell’s Premiership try-scoring record. And this man has one cap for England?
Certainly, the level of talent in the England squad means that, inevitably, some very talented players are not going to play so regularly. But, when established players get injured or decide to retire, there needs to be a range of experienced back-ups ready to step into their jerseys. This will not be the case in this Autumn international series, as the inexperience in the squad shows, but is a problem that seems to perpetuate.
The huge range of players playing exceptionally well in the Premiership means the pack of replacements is repeatedly shuffled and altered. Someone who may play well all season would get a few England call-ups, as a substitute, but is not given a consistent run of games to nurture their talent. International coaches repeatedly insist that the step up from club to international rugby is huge; this step, for anyone other than the exceptionally gifted, cannot be taken in one go. It takes patience and a show of faith from the selectors, which is something that is not happening in the England setup.
Predictably, the best example of this sort of selection process is in New Zealand. Their player pool is a lot smaller than England’s, that fact cannot be disputed. But, like England, they have their established starters that fill every selection announcement. They also have a series of more inexperienced players underneath them but, through consistent selection and a gradual introduction into the international setup, they are given due time to nurture their talents.
Take the squad that Steve Hansen has selected to bring to Europe for their end-of-year tour; some of the young players have already established themselves as fully-fledged internationals, and others still have enough experience to make an impact if called upon. Anton Lienert-Brown, aged 23, has 30 caps; Ardie Savea, aged 25, has 31 caps; Damien Mackenzie, aged 23, has 19 caps.
Lienert-Brown is a perfect example; he earned his first three caps as a replacement in the centres for Ryan Crotty or Sonny Bill Williams and, when Williams was injured, he was given a starting role. He dropped to the bench for the first 2017 Lions test, then started the second and third. He has been rotated from the bench to the starting team fairly regularly over his international career, and amassed a wealth of experience as a result.
This is the type of career development that the England selectors dream of, but the enormous player pool presents a temptation the head coach cannot usually resist. Not only are newer squad members chopped and changed repeatedly, but players who might be ready-made for international rugby might not be given a chance, because they're overlooked in favour of others playing well in their position.
Certainly, testing out different players across a World Cup cycle is important, but the end of the cycle should always be the primary focus. When England head to Japan next Summer, assuming all players are fully fit, there will be the same public outcry about various different players excluded from the travelling squad. Some of these players might have been hugely advantageous to England’s World Cup chances but, because of the enormous player pool, the fans nor the selectors will never know.