Head coach Stuart Lancaster has defended his decision to recall Calum Clark to his Six Nations England squad after a 32-week ban – insisting his personal knowledge of the player’s character is reason to envisage a bright international future.
The Northampton Saints blindside flanker, who flourished from Leeds Carnegie’s Academy when Lancaster was in charge at Headingley, was suspended for eight months last March after pleading guilty to breaking the elbow of Leicester Tigers hooker Rob Hawkins in the LV= Cup final.
That scuppered any chance of making his England debut then or since but he was yesterday named in the 33-man elite squad for this year’s tournament with the England chief adamant he has learned from the ugly experience.
Lancaster, announcing the squad at his local club West Park Leeds, said: “I’ve observed his behaviour and watched him in games to see if he’s on the right side of where he should be in terms of competitiveness.
“I know Calum’s personality inside out so I’m not questioning that. I’ve coached him since he was 14-years-old so I know him probably better than most.
“He was hugely regretful for the incident, put his hands up, said he made a bad mistake, apologised and never felt anything other than remorse.
“He’s served his punishment and it was a tough lesson to learn.
“But I think he’s harnessing that competitive nature now; he’s channelling it in the right way and I’m a believer in people getting a second chance.”
Scrum-half Danny Care, a former miscreant himself, is testimony to that and a successful example of Lancaster’s approach.
Clark, 23, became the Premiership’s youngest forward when he debuted for Leeds against Saracens aged just 18 in 2007.
He went on to play 70 games for the West Yorkshire club, captaining England Under-20s before switching to Saints.
Lancaster – who has made seven changes to his senior elite squad – believes Clark could make the same sort of instant impact as Joe Launchbury did in the autumn if given a chance when the Six Nations begin next month.
He also sees his versatility as crucial given Clark has been impressing in the second-row, too.
“He’s got to have the desire to want to play in the second-row for it to be successful and I checked that that is the case,” explained Lancaster.
“I think he’d play full-back for England to be honest. What he’s got to do is make the step from being a good player with potential into an international player and this is the next step.”
Launchbury, Youngs, Mako Vunipola and Freddie Burns have all been formally promoted after impressing during England’s autumn internationals while exciting Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees gets a shot too.
Ex-Rotherham winger David Strettle is recalled in place of Charlie Sharples and James Haskell has replaced Phil Dowson.
Youngs has taken the place of injured Bath hooker Rob Webber, Launchbury has ousted Wasps team-mate and ex-Leeds star Tom Palmer, while Vunipola is an additional selection.
Lancaster has dropped centres Anthony Allen and Jordan Turner-Hall, Clark is preferred to Mouritz Botha and Tom Croft is included after overcoming a neck injury but is unlikely to feature.
Subsequently, Vunipola’s younger brother Billy, the dynamic Wasps No 8, will train with England in their pre-Six Nations camp which takes place at West Park Leeds for a second year running from January 20-25.
Lancaster, meanwhile, revealed he sees ex-St Helens scrum-half Kyle Eastmond as a future England full-back.
The Bath winger/centre earns his first call up to the England Saxons squad along with another rugby league convert Joel Tomkins.
“We think 15 is where Kyle’s got the best chance of playing for England and we’ll look at him there,” he said.
“When Kyle gets his hands on the ball and with his natural footballing instincts, he suits our system as a second ball player who can play at full-back.”
Lancaster also expressed his relief that ex-Leeds and England flanker Hendre Fourie can stay in the UK after fears the South African-born flanker could be deported after a shoulder injury forced his retirement.
Immigration officials have said he can remain while they consider what steps to take but Lancaster added from his talk with Fourie the prospect of returning home was also “quite attractive”.
England senior elite player squad
Forwards: Clark, Corbisiero, Cole, Croft, Hartley, Haskell, Johnson, Launchbury, Lawes, Marler, Morgan, Parling, Robshaw, Vunipola, Waldrom, Wilson, Wood, T Youngs.
Backs: Ashton, Barritt, Brown, Burns, Care, Dickson, Farrell, Flood, Foden, Goode, Joseph, Strettle, Tuilagi, Twelvetrees, B Youngs.