That it was Dewsbury-born Sam Burgess who prevailed ahead of Huddersfield’s Luther Burrell, could lead some to suggest that Leeds resident Stuart Lancaster had chosen style over substance.
Burgess is the gamebreaker, the man who brings the ‘X factor’ to the 31-man England squad Lancaster named yesterday for next month’s World Cup.
Burrell has the body of work. He has been a rare mainstay in the ever-changing landscape of England’s centre pairings for the best part of 18 months, and can feel mightily aggrieved that not only has the exciting, but raw, Burgess overtaken him, but so too has Henry Slade, who excelled on his debut against France at Twickenham earlier this month.
Burrell may feel he has been punished for toiling against the same opposition seven days later in Paris, but so too did most of the England squad.
Since making his bow against Les Bleus at the start of last year’s Six Nations, Burrell has played every game in the northern hemisphere tournament, forming a formidable alliance at stages with Jonathan Joseph, who does make the cut.
So Burrell is forced to watch the action unfold, rather than help shape it, a chance afforded to Burgess, the talented 26-year-old whose inclusion caps a remarkable rise since quitting rugby league and South Sydney Rabbitohs last October to embark on his World Cup dream with first Bath, and now England.
“He’s picked on merit from what we’ve seen in the camp,” said Lancaster, whose host nation kick the tournament off against Fiji on Friday, September 18.
“Obviously he’s come in, learned the game at Bath. He’s played a lot of time at 12, sometimes at six, but a lot of time certainly standing in the centres.
“He’s earned the right. I wouldn’t describe it as a gamble. I understand the size of this decision, as I do the size of every decision when you’re in a World Cup year. Every one is a big one.”
Lancaster dismissed suggestions of a final trial on Wednesday, when the players faced their opposite numbers, with Burgess lining up between Owen Farrell and Slade, against Danny Cipriani, Brad Barritt and Burrell.
Sale fly-half Cipriani was another to miss out as Ben Morgan was named as one of England’s No 8s, ahead of Nick Easter. Burgess and Slade have impressed during the course of England’s summer-long camp, including on their debuts against France earlier this month.
Lancaster said: “They’ve absolutely trained the house down, impressed everyone, not just us (the coaching staff), but the players themselves and come into that France game and made two debuts that I’ve not seen before.”
England backs coach Andy Farrell, who himself converted from rugby league to play in the 2007 World Cup with England, said of Burgess: “He’s been behind the eight ball as far as time’s concerned. To force our hand to put him into the squad, he should be unbelievably proud of himself.”
One-time Doncaster player Kieran Brookes was picked as prop ahead of injury-plagued Alex Corbisiero. Former Leeds Carnegie flanker Calum Clark misses out alongside Billy Twelvetrees, who like Burrell, had been a regular during the four-year cycle.
Two further ex-Leeds Tykes have also been selected by the former Headingley chief: scrum-half Danny Care and hooker Rob Webber. Care’s inclusion is pleasing. Four years ago a toe injury denied him a place at the World Cup, but at last the 28-year-old will get his chance.