Alastair Hignell: By George, he's a talent, but he's not ready for England yet
AT least none of his selections suffered a serious injury. England coach Stuart Lancaster must have feared the worst ahead of last weekend's Premiership semi-finals as an extraordinary 31 of his 42-man squad for next month's tour of South Africa were due to play for Harlequins, Leicester, Saracens and Northampton. As it happens, the most serious injury concern of the weekend affects a player who, in the end, didn't get on the pitch.
Toby Flood's absence from the Leicester line-up merely allowed a precocious talent to shine. Nineteen-year-old George Ford, son of former England assistant coach Mike, gave such a mature display in Leicester's close, but convincing, victory over Saracens that suggestions that, if need arose, he could replace Flood on the plane to South Africa, seemed far from far-fetched.
That's not going to happen. Ford may be young and talented, but he's also small and light. It's well nigh impossible to do anything that might make him taller than the 5ft 9ins he claims to be, but Leicester and Lancaster are convinced he could benefit from a bit of supervised bulking-up. Instead of strutting his stuff on the veld, Ford can look forward to a summer of pumping iron in the gym.
The opposite logic applies to two other young Tigers.
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Hooker Tom Youngs and lock Graham Kitchener are, like Ford, far from regulars in the Leicester line-up. Youngs, in fact, has yet to start a Premiership match for the Tigers and has only been a hooker for three years.
But he's the brother of England scrum-half Ben and the son of former England number nine Nick, and, having played Premiership rugby as a centre, is deemed to have all the pace, tackling ability and ball-handling skill necessary to reach the top as an international front-row forward. What he doesn't have is experience of big-match rugby and consistency with his line-out throwing – deficiencies which a couple of midweek matches against South African opposition will go some way to rectifying.
Kitchener should benefit likewise. So should other new forwards such as Joe Launchbury, Tom Johnson, Carl Fearns and Joe Marler, first-time backs like George Lowe, Jonathan Joseph, Alex Goode and Christian Wade and returners such as James Haskell, Lee Mears and Thomas Waldrom up front and Danny Care, Anthony Allen and Mike Brown behind the scrum.
But, while some pundits are hailing Lancaster for giving youth its head and rewarding the players in form, others are entitled to wonder whether he has gone far enough. I'm not sure, for instance, that he's been entirely consistent.
On the one hand, he talks about planning for the next World Cup and the need to give young players plenty of Test experience before the competition comes to England in 2015. On the other, he finds room for thirty-somethings Waldrom, Palmer and Mears up front, and, even in the face of the extraordinary progress made by the likes of Ford and Gloucester's Freddie Burns, keeps faith with Charlie Hodgson.
If he has decided that, particularly against South Africa, he needs players with the sort of experience these 'veterans' bring to the table, why hasn't he found a place for Nick Easter, who, as Saturday's display against Northampton confirmed, is still one of the wiliest operators around?
If he still hasn't forgiven Easter for the infamous "35 grand down the toilet" remark at last autumn's World Cup, why has he welcomed Haskell, for whom he also has to breach the protocol prohibiting from selecting players from outside the UK, back into the fold?
And, if he is really tough on miscreants, why has he extended the olive branch so swiftly to Care, a man who, after being evicted from the squad for drunken transgressions, has been involved in drink-related incidents on two subsequent occasions?
If he hasn't done so already, Lancaster will claim exceptional circumstances in the last two cases. Unlike Easter, the two could be key components of his World Cup squad and, as such, are worth a gamble. He should waste no time in explaining to them that they really are supping in the last-chance saloon.
My only other quibbles with Lancaster's selections concern the lack of depth at hooker and on the left wing. Mears and David Strettle are lucky that there are few credible alternatives in their playing positions. If they didn't know before, they do now. The youngsters are breathing down their necks.