ENGLAND head coach Stuart Lancaster has backed Chris Robshaw to cast aside constant speculation over his role in international rugby and prove his pedigree after re-naming the Harlequins flanker as skipper for the autumn internationals.
Lancaster has included a trio of uncapped players – Bath winger Semesa Rokoduguni, Saracens second row George Kruis and Northampton flanker Calum Clark – in his 33-man elite squad for the QBE Series which gets underway against New Zealand on Saturday 8 November.
England’s injury problems are well documented for the autumn programme, which also includes clashes with South Africa, Samoa and Australia, with a host of absentees especially in the pack, while Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi is extremely unlikely to feature having sustained a groin injury at the weekend.
But despite an indifferent start to the domestic campaign with mis-firing Harlequins, Robshaw is the man to lead England into their southern hemisphere examination, although Lancaster insists the 28-year-old still needs to prove his credentials.
“He is tough and he is resilient and the one thing about Chris is he always responds to a challenge and that brings out the best out of him,” said Lancaster. “He still feels he has a lot to do to improve his game and I think it is right he has to play well and earn his right to get in the team.
“If we went James Haskell, Billy Vunipola and Tom Wood for instance that’s still a pretty good back-row.”
Saracens winger Chris Ashton heads the list of high-profile players not to make the cut, which also includes club-mate and fellow wing David Strettle, fly-half duo Danny Cipriani and Freddy Burns as well as Wasps star Christian Wade.
Fijian-born Rokoduguni, a serving solider in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, is one of four wingers to be named at Ashton’s expense, with Marland Yarde, Jack Nowell and Jonny May filling the remaining slots.
Although Lancaster denies his exclusion spells the end of Ashton’s hopes of making next year’s World Cup squad, the former Leeds Carnegie boss has a polarised view on what he expects from his wingers.
“It’s not a long way back for Chris at all and neither is it for Christian Wade, David Strettle or Anthony Watson,” added Lancaster. “They were four players we had a really good debate about.
“But especially with losing Manu [Tuilagi], we’re going to need some punch in our backline and Marland [Yarde] and Roko [Rokoduguni] seem to be the guys that can do that.
“What we want in our players is consistency and two standout qualities. It’s fine having a point of difference but the other bit is to be good at everything else, including ruck effectiveness, high-ball receipt, defensive alignment, everything.”
Lancaster has reverted to the three fly-halves on duty during the 2014 Six Nations, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Stephen Myler, with the latter two still to make their first international starts.
And despite 25-times capped Farrell suffering from a lack of game time at Saracens so far this season due to a quad strain, Lancaster appears to have no qualms about handing him the No10 shirt for the opening showdown with world champions New Zealand.
“We’ve never been afraid to put players in for their first cap whatever the situation but equally you have to get the balance right when you’re playing the All Blacks who have had a consistent run of game,” said Lancaster.
“Cohesion is important for us as is experience, which counts as well as form and fitness and of the fly-halves we have Owen is the most experienced and that would go in his favour.”
ENGLAND SQUAD FOR AUTUMN TESTS
■ Loose-head props
Joe Marler (Harlequins)
Matt Mullan (Wasps)
■ Tight-head props
Kieran Brookes (Newcastle Falcons)
David Wilson (Bath Rugby)
Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints)
Rob Webber (Bath Rugby)
Dave Attwood (Bath Rugby)
George Kruis (Saracens)
Joe Launchbury (Wasps)
Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints)
■ Back rows
Calum Clark (Northampton Saints)
James Haskell (Wasps)
Ben Morgan (Gloucester Rugby)
Chris Robshaw (Harlequins, captain)
Billy Vunipola (Saracens)
Tom Wood (Northampton Saints)
Danny Care (Harlequins)
Lee Dickson (Northampton Saints)
Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers)
Owen Farrell (Saracens)
George Ford (Bath Rugby)
Stephen Myler (Northampton Saints)
Brad Barritt (Saracens)
Luther Burrell (Northampton Saints)
Kyle Eastmond (Bath Rugby)
Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby)
Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester Rugby)
■ Back threes
Mike Brown (Harlequins)
Alex Goode (Saracens)
Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby)
Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs)
Semesa Rokoduguni (Bath Rugby)
HOT: ON THE UP IN ENGLAND CAMP
First England call-up for the Bath wing after stealing a march on rivals
The second row will look to make the most of England’s injuries
Has starred with Wasps and forced his way back into England fold
The Northampton flanker has graduated from the Saxons
NOT: WORLD CUP HOPES ARE FADING
Once guaranteed a spot but Lancaster is now not so keen
The England set-up eye No10s with sound game-management
Like Cipriani, has fallen behind Farrell, Ford and Myler in pecking order
Still looking to return to previous heights but remains on the radar