When the 30 other names on the list are relegated to bit-part roles within minutes of the squad being named it suggests a couple things.
One is that the English game is not awash with superstars and the Rugby Football Union is thrilled by the possibility that, in the nick of time, it may have found one. The other is that Lancaster is more of a gambler than some perceive. No one will be more acutely aware that the aforementioned Sam Burgess’s inclusion is the biggest risk of his tenure, bar none.
Set aside, for a moment, the leadership qualities that Burgess undoubtedly brings. This is a player who has been picked for a World Cup squad having started just six games as a centre for his club. Bath have subsequently decided he would be more gainfully employed in the back row.
England, though, are unbothered, plumping for the big man on the evidence ofone solid warm-up showing against a second-string French midfield. It is akin to a Yorkshire seamer being picked for England as a leg-spinner.
Apart from the gifted Israel Folau, who was playing for the Wallabies against the British and Irish Lions barely six months after switching to union following spells in Australian Rules and rugby league, successful precedents are few. Crucially, Folau is an outside-back, whereas Burgess is having to learn his trade in a far more congested classroom. “I understand the size of this decision but I understand the size of every decision in a World Cup year,” acknowledged Lancaster.
So why the massive punt? According to the coaches, they are merely responding to what they have seen in practice these past 10 weeks. Burgess and Henry Slade have apparently “trained the house down” and backed it up with their midfield duet against France at Twickenham two weekends ago.
Slade, just 22, has also been an unwitting catalyst, offering a palate of skills and an increasing confidence that encouraged the management to venture beyond the more familiar Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees and Kyle Eastmond. The minute a second playmaker enters the midfield mix, the need for a strong, direct powerful foil increases proportionately. “There never is one moment in selection,” emphasised Lancaster, again highlighting Burgess’s potential threat as a decoy runner. “It is a picture you build up over time. They have both been excellent and deserve their chance.”
The head coach, even so, was still wavering at 8pm on Wednesday night, conscious of the assorted implications. Having to tell Burrell, whom he has known since he was 15, he was out was “very, very hard”, and his face-to-face meetings with the likes of Nick Easter, Calum Clark and Dave Attwood were equally painful. “That’s the nature of being head coach. You’ve got to make tough decisions but you’ve got to make decisions you feel are right for the team.”
Easter and Attwood have lost out to Ben Morgan and George Kruis respectively, with Kieran Brookes chosen as the fifth prop over Alex Corbisiero. Clark, Twelvetrees and Luke Cowan-Dickie have also fallen at the last but Morgan was able to satisfy the management he has recovered fully from the broken leg he sustained last January. Corbisiero’s recent attack of sciatica, in contrast, could not have come at a worse moment.
“I’m ready,” were his final words to Lancaster before he departed back to Northampton, with only a possible standby role as consolation. Which begs the question: how truly oven-ready are England for the white heat of a home World Cup they would prefer was not starting for another six months? Looking down the list there is less experience than Lancaster would ideally wish, with only seven survivors from the 2011 tournament. The four centres between them boast just 35 caps and Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph have never started a Test together.
The conspicuous absence of Danny Cipriani, Manu Tuilagi, Dylan Hartley, Steffon Armitage and others also raises the performance stakes, particularly as vintage ex-centres such as Will Carling and Brian O’Driscoll believe Burgess is far from the finished article, a Yorkshire pudding who has yet to rise fully. Lancaster is aware of the naysayers – “Everyone is entitled to their opinion” – but also knows a resounding display against Ireland next week would swiftly restore a nation’s faith.
Russell Crowe is already onside – “Lancaster, you frigging champion” – and there is no shortage of youthful potential if England can achieve some early momentum. A home World Cup, though, carries a health warning: mess up and the fallout will make Gladiator feel like a romantic comedy.