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Mercer and Mitchell omissions are baffling – Andy Goode

By Andy Goode
(Photo by David Rogers/The RFU Collection via Getty Imagesges)

The omission of Zach Mercer and Alex Mitchell from England’s latest World Cup training squad is baffling and hints even more at a cautious approach from Steve Borthwick.

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Bazball may be coming in for a bit of criticism for the first time at the moment in English cricket but it has reinvigorated the national team and reconnected fans with it and it’s hard to see Borthball having a similar effect in rugby.

Only Italy and Wales scored fewer tries than England in this year’s Six Nations, despite them having more territory than any other team, and as many as eight of the 13 tries they did score started with a scrum or a lineout.

That isn’t exactly getting bums off seats and now two of the most exciting, attacking players who could have improved things have been jettisoned from the squad at a relatively early stage in the preparations for the World Cup.

The decision to cut Mercer is particularly hard to understand after he was named Top 14 player of the year in 2021/22 as Montpellier won the title and then beat more defenders than any other player in the league this season in a team that struggled at times.

Zach Mercer
Zach Mercer has become a better player from regular appearances for Montpellier (Photo by John Berry/Getty Images)

You have to wonder what he’s thinking as well after agreeing to return to the Premiership and probably take a sizeable pay cut in order to be eligible for his country again only to be cast aside without being given an opportunity to show what he can do in an international.

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Number eight has been something of a problem position for England too and, although Billy Vunipola may return if he proves his fitness, the incumbent Alex Dombrandt had a poor Six Nations and it feels like he’s had a fair crack of the whip.

Tom Willis finished the season strongly with Bordeaux but it’s a major shock not to see Mercer’s name in the latest squad, especially after Sam Simmonds ruled himself out of contention a couple of weeks ago.

There was more competition for Mitchell at scrum half and Borthwick has gone with the experience of Danny Care, together with the Leicester pair of Ben Youngs and Jack van Poortvliet who he knows inside out.

Care has been one of the best players in the Premiership in recent years but he is 36 and Mitchell, a decade his junior, was the spark that ignited a Saints attack which scored more tries than any other team in the Premiership this season.

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Alex Mitchell
Alex Mitchell added zip to England’s service (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It feels like a closer call between the pair of them than it would’ve been for me at number eight but it does seem as if Borthwick has gone for the more conservative option again and Mitchell will feel he hasn’t been given a proper chance to shine either.

The Northampton man has won all five of his caps from the bench, including scoring a try on debut a couple of years ago, and his four appearances in this year’s Six Nations amounted to just 71 minutes of playing time in total.

Elsewhere, it’s great to see Theo Dan included, albeit probably only because of Luke Cowan-Dickie’s injury-enforced absence, after his exciting form with ball in hand for Saracens towards the end of the campaign.

There are a few other interesting calls with the likes of Adam Radwan, Ted Hill and others who have the potential to inject a bit of youth, energy and pace missing out but Mercer and Mitchell are by far the most notable omissions.

It’s no surprise that Owen Farrell has been confirmed as captain, with Ellis Genge and Courtney Lawes named as vice captains, but I think there was a golden opportunity to reconnect with fans after the departure of Eddie Jones and it isn’t being taken so far.

Of course, winning will soon get supporters back on side but showing personality and playing with a certain style and freedom will go a long way towards encouraging people to get excited about the England rugby team again as well.

There may have been a few recent batting calamities that come with the territory but that is what we have seen with the England cricket team under Brendan McCullum and Ben Stokes and it’d be great to see something similar, even if not as radical, from Borthwick and Farrell.

England Borthwick <a href=
Rugby World Cup training squad” width=”1024″ height=”576″ /> (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

We know from his successful tenure at Leicester that Borthwick favours a conservative, pragmatic approach but England aren’t going to win a World Cup unless they develop their attack significantly.

The men in white had the slowest average ruck speed in the 2023 Six Nations of 3.77 seconds, they made the fewest linebreaks and kicked more in play than anyone else.

Mercer and Mitchell are two of the first English players you think of when it comes to injecting pace and beating a man and the fact they’ve been left out already perhaps doesn’t bode well for people expecting those statistics and the style of play to change at the World Cup.

England’s preparations for the tournament will be long and rigorous, they will be more well-drilled than in the Six Nations but they need to find a few sparks to go with that. We’ve been crying out for Mercer’s return from France and Mitchell has long deserved the chance to start a Test and show what he can do.

There’s no doubt in my mind that both have the potential to light the blue touch paper on the world stage but it looks like they might be doing it for their clubs in the Premiership Rugby Cup come September instead.

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Comments

2 Comments
I
Ian 355 days ago

I'm surprised Mitchell is out as he looked the form 9 when he came on in the 6N. Care is hardly there for his box kicking though he is decent in that department. He's there to control the team in the Quins manner. Mercer is unlucky as he's competing in a strong area for England. I disagree about Dombrandt having a poor 6N. He did however have two conspicuous dropped passes. At his best he has size, power and subtlety. Tom Willis is more of a traditional 8. Borthwick is taking a look in training.

P
Paul 358 days ago

Good old pragmatic England. Get ready for a kick fest and 10 man rugby for matches against the top teams! Brave new world eh!

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