Saturday 7 December 2019

Redemption for Clark as Lancaster puts faith in 'remorseful' Saints sinner

Chris Hewett

Stuart Lancaster has not quite completed the switch from master of mystery to paragon of predictability in the space of a calendar year – the England coach pulled a rabbit from his hat by promoting Northampton flanker Calum Clark to the squad for the Six Nations – but he is far more settled in his view of things now than he was this time last season.

He is not even keeping people guessing about the identity of the England skipper.

"I'll be attending next week's Six Nations launch with the captain and you shouldn't expect any surprises," he said, by way of confirming that Harlequins back-row Chris Robshaw will continue in the role despite ferocious criticism of his leadership skills in the middle stages of the autumn series.

For all Lancaster's additions and adjustments to the 33-man senior party, there will be few changes, if any, to the starting line-up when England face Scotland at Twickenham early next month. The main injury concerns surround loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero and full-back Alex Goode.

As expected, Lancaster called up Gloucester midfielders Freddie Burns and Billy Twelvetrees, Saracens prop Mako Vunipola, Leicester hooker Tom Youngs and Wasps lock Joe Launchbury.

Two more familiar international hands, Saracens wing David Strettle and Wasps back-rower James Haskell, were also given places – Strettle at the expense of Charlie Sharples.

Clark's sudden return to the group was the one eyebrow-raiser, and not just because he spent much of last year under suspension after a grisly assault on Leicester hooker Rob Hawkins during the Anglo-Welsh Cup final. The main talking point was Lancaster's decision to drop two locks, Mouritz Botha and Tom Palmer, to make way for a career back-rower who has spent precious little time in the boilerhouse of the second-row.

"On the face of it, we might look a bit light in the lock department with just Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, but Palmer is struggling with a calf injury and anyway, we feel Calum has the physical equipment to double up in that area," Lancaster explained. "I've been coaching him since he was 14 and I know what he offers in terms of toughness, durability and versatility.

"I was disappointed at what happened last year (when Clark left Hawkins nursing a serious arm injury) but he's never felt anything but remorse over what he did and watching him closely in recent weeks, I think he's been successful in harnessing his competitive nature. He was given a hard lesson to learn, and he has learnt it."

Perhaps the most intriguing developments were in the second-tier Saxons squad, which features some of the most exciting talent: notably free-scoring Wasps wing Christian Wade and outstanding young Worcester open-side Matt Kvesic, both of whom can be expected to stake very strong claims for promotion over the remainder of the campaign.

Lancaster stressed the need for "players who can make a difference when the game is at stalemate" and believes those two have what it takes.

As, perhaps, does Wasps No 8 Billy Vunipola, brother of Mako and named alongside Kvesic and the increasingly effective Saracens flanker Will Fraser on a strong-looking Saxons back-row roster led by the demoted Northampton forward Phil Dowson, whose dropping from the senior squad pained the coach.

Vunipola will train with the senior squad in the coming weeks as cover for Lions flanker Tom Croft, still recovering from a long-term neck injury. (© Independent News Service)

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