Martin Johnson has shrugged off questions about the cosmopolitan make-up of England’s Rugby World Cup training squad after including several foreign-born players in his 45-strong preliminary group.
While New Zealanders Dylan Hartley, Riki Flutey and Shontayne Hape have long been fixtures in the England set-up, Johnson raised a few eyebrows after naming Kiwi Thomas Waldrom and South African Mouritz Botha in his squad on Monday.
Waldrom and Botha were also joined in the squad by Leicester’s Samoan-born center Manu Tuilagi, as well as Matt Stevens, the South African-born prop who qualifies for England through his English father.
Several commentators have questioned whether a union with the resources of England — which with 166,672 registered senior players far exceeds their nearest rival, France with 110,270 — really needs to cast its net so wide.
After all, New Zealand has a mere 27,374 players to choose from according to International Rugby Board figures, and the All Blacks have consistently been the benchmark for Test-playing nations for years.
Johnson, however, made it clear he has no qualms about selecting players who meet the eligibility regulations laid down by the IRB.
Asked if he could see why the sizeable foreign contingent within English ranks may jar with some observers, Johnson was nonplussed.
“No one has said anything to me so I’ll report back if they do,” he said. “I’ve not had that feedback from anyone.”
Johnson — who himself once represented New Zealand’s Under-21 side before later leading England to World Cup glory in 2003 — instead encouraged English players to raise their standards.
Asked what sort of message the selection of Botha, who qualifies through residency, and Waldrom, who has an English grandparent, would send to young English players, Johnson was emphatic: “Be good.”
“Play well in the Premiership. If you want to play for England play well in the Premiership and be good enough to get in. Those two guys have come in for the first time and they’ve got to come in and establish themselves in the group,” he said. “I’ve seen guys born abroad who’ve done that, and guys born in England who’ve done that. And guys who haven’t done it. You show your commitment to the cause every day. The way you train, the way you play.”
“It happened through my career. Every team I played in probably had somebody who was born outside of England or the UK. It was how they played that was the important thing. They [Waldrom and Botha] are in with a shot, they deserve their chance and we’re looking forward to seeing them have a crack,” he said.
In all probability, Botha and Waldrom remain outside bets to feature in England’s final 30-man World Cup squad, which will be named on Aug. 22.
Tuilagi, the powerful center whose five elder brothers have all played international rugby for Samoa, looks a likelier prospect.
The 20-year-old has risen through England’s age groups since moving to Britain as a schoolboy. He narrowly avoided deportation last year after it emerged he had first arrived in Britain on a tourist visa.
Tuilagi was recently banned for five weeks after unleashing a flurry of punches on England wing Chris Ashton in a club match. Johnson stressed that the need for discipline in New -Zealand would be emphasized.
“Manu’s had a fantastic year for a guy in his first season so we thought he deserved a chance,” Johnson said.
“We can’t have guys getting suspended down there on or off the field. We’re in New Zealand, we all know what that’s like, it’s a goldfish bowl, and we’re in a World Cup which is another goldfish bowl,” he said. “We don’t need silly bans or suspensions when we’re over there because it puts the whole group under pressure.”
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