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Selection battles

David Flatman

It’s probably natural for a professional rugby player to question any selection that doesn’t include him, and probably natural that any views he has are shared by those closest to him. Usually, however, the reasoning concluded in said player’s affronted mind is far more emotional and convoluted than the reality.

Often you’re not chosen because it was decided by clever people that somebody else might do a better job for the team. It can be tough to take, but that’s what chins are for. 

Sometimes, though, non-selection can feel sufficiently harsh that folks beyond the inner-circle choose to pass comment. These are the times, perhaps, when the powder that’s been kept respectfully dry needs to be loaded and fired. Whinging week after week is not going to endear a player to anybody, so a ‘selection battle’ becomes an innate sporting skill. One of the biggest battles I chose to pick was against Martin Johnson during his time as England coach. 

It’s probably natural for a professional rugby player to question any selection that doesn’t include him, and probably natural that any views he has are shared by those closest to him. Usually, however, the reasoning concluded in said player’s affronted mind is far more emotional and convoluted than the reality.

Often you’re not chosen because it was decided by clever people that somebody else might do a better job for the team. It can be tough to take, but that’s what chins are for. 

Sometimes, though, non-selection can feel sufficiently harsh that folks beyond the inner-circle choose to pass comment. These are the times, perhaps, when the powder that’s been kept respectfully dry needs to be loaded and fired. Whinging week after week is not going to endear a player to anybody, so a ‘selection battle’ becomes an innate sporting skill. One of the biggest battles I chose to pick was against Martin Johnson during his time as England coach. 

Now, this was tough for a few reasons. Firstly, though we weren’t exactly spending Christmas Days together, I’d have labelled Johnno a mate. We’d toured together and trained together, and we’d always got on very well. 

However, he once announced an England squad without me in it and, while that would normally feel sad, frustrating and annoying, this was a particularly aggressive non-selection as the other player in my position at club level was chosen ahead of me. Again, this would normally have been just about tolerable, except for the fact that he’d played about 18 minutes in the last eight weeks, and I’d played all the others. He was a very good player and a beloved mate, but he’d hardly played, and yet there he was on the M4 coasting to Pennyhill Park. Outrageous, my aggrieved mind exclaimed.

Johnno is highly intelligent, great fun, unflappable, and all those good things but at this point, he retained the trenchant view that anyone who was on television instead of headbutting walls was soft and a poser.

I did a bit of ferreting and was told by three people in one day that it had been decided that I was more interested in working on the television than I was in playing rugby, so I decided to hell with it, I’d call Johnno and be frank with him – as he would were the roles reversed – and what followed was one of the most important conversations of my career. 

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson was a man’s man but empathetic (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Johnno is highly intelligent, great fun, unflappable, and all those good things but at this point, he retained the trenchant view that anyone who was on television instead of headbutting walls was soft and a poser. I explained that while he retired a legend of the world game, my career had been largely very average. Lots of poorly timed and serious injuries, combined with a distinct lack of actual talent had meant that my CV looked a poor imitation of his after the line marked: Job Title. Life after rugby, I proffered, might look very different for me, so learning new skills and potentially creating income streams before it all ended was something of a necessity.

Johnno was receptive, empathetic, and good-natured during this call. He thanked me for saying my piece, and a while later selected me for an England tour. Granted, I didn’t play brilliantly, because my shoulders had stopped working and I was basically a bit rubbish by then, but he still accepted he’d been off the mark. I loved that humility from a person in a position of power (and yes, as a rugby fan, I still hate the way it all ended for Johnno and English rugby). 

I mention this little personal anecdote as I still believe the media plays a sizable part in who is selected – or, more pertinently, who is not selected – for England. 

Dan Robson not yet having a plastic IKEA storage box in his garage full of England caps just feels peculiar.

There will always be players who we feel are hard done by when it comes to their absence from a team-sheet, but let’s be frank: there are some players who Eddie Jones repeatedly refuses to acknowledge or select, even though they are clearly playing consistently better rugby than anybody else. In medical terms, accusations like these are easily explained away by ‘clinical interpretation’.

In rugby, a coach can claim that one player suits the team’s style better than that bloke who’s been man of the match five times in the last six weeks, and, because rugby is still as much about a gut feeling as mere data, we effectively can’t argue (except we do, because that’s the fun part). 

Don Armand
Don Armand’s non-selection became a cause célèbre (Photo by Stephen White/CameraSport via Getty Images)

Don Armand of Exeter Chiefs being ignored in the years when his physical dominance and relentlessness regularly left spectators and journalists open-mouthed was, frankly, stubborn to the point of being tragic. Dan Robson not yet having a plastic IKEA storage box in his garage full of England caps also just feels peculiar.

There have been extended periods when he simply could not have played any better, yet others are selected ahead of him, time after time, despite being in unarguably bang-average form. Credit in the England bank is a real and important currency, of course, but how can form players ever accrue any if they are not given a chance? 

One almost fears for Jack Willis. Willis is by a large margin the best rugby player currently operating in the Gallagher Premiership.

“Don’t talk him up too much or Eddie won’t pick him” has become an almost accepted trope offered around this subject, and that joke – one even trotted out by the players themselves – began with Armand. English rugby can kind of get away with it, too, so deep is their pool of willing, muscular mutants, but that doesn’t mean it should be accepted without a fight.

Eddie Jones has, through excellent results and sheer charisma, become something approaching omnipotent at the RFU. Much of his influence has been earned and is deserved, but it feels dangerous to allow any powerful individual to escape scrutiny, whatever the walk of life. 

Jack Willis
Jack Willis is playing at the peak of his powers (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

To this end, one almost fears for Jack Willis. Willis is by a large margin the best rugby player currently operating in the Gallagher Premiership, but this comes with issues. You see, we all see it and we all say it, and what does recent history tell us will happen when the masses demand compliance? Yes, quite. 

For what it’s worth, once the serious stuff gets going, my England back row to face Italy would be Jack Willis at 6, Tom Curry at 7 and Sam Simmonds at 8, with Sam Underhill to come on and deal with Jake Polledri if the West Country rhinoceros is inflicting his trademarked damage. 

For now, though, I might keep quiet. Wouldn’t want to cost Willis a cap… 

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