Sam Burgess was named as part of England Rugby World Cup squad on Thursday, despite having only played one international since making his rugby union debut nine months ago.
Burgess, who won his first cap in a World Cup warm-up game against France, was chosen over six nations regular Luther Burrell as one of four centres in a relatively inexperienced 31-man strong team.
“Sam’s picked on merit from what we’ve seen over past 10 weeks,” said England head coach Stuart Lancaster at a press conference. “Sam has done great. I wouldn’t describe it as a gamble. I understand the size of this decision but I understand the size of every selection.”
“With Luther, we felt with Henry and Sam as a duo really impressed. Henry has been excellent for Exeter and has earned his stripes in the Premiership.
“Sam is completely different. He’s come in from a new code and both of them have absolutely trained the house down. They made two debuts I have not seen before. They’ve earned their place.”
England backs coach, Andy Farrell, who himself converted from rugby league to rugby union in 2007 to play for England at the World Cup, reiterated Lancaster’s sentiments about Burgess: “To force our hand to put him into the squad, he should be unbelievably proud of himself.”
But former England international Will Carling said earlier in the week that Burgess should not have been called up for the World Cup after frequently being caught out of position in the two France matches.
“There is no-one I have spoken to who I respect – ex-players, coaches – who thinks he’s ready,” said Carling, who captained England to the 1991 World Cup final. “He’s been playing union for 10 months and half of that was in a different position to what England are playing him in.”
“I don’t believe he’s one of the four best centres in England.”
Carling was also critical of the decision to omit Danny Cipriani, who was only given 45 minutes against France out of position at full back to show off his capabilities.
“You have two warm-up games and try to give everyone an opportunity,’ Lancaster said of the controversy surrounding Cipriani’s absence. “It’s tough on Danny, who has been fantastic in camp and improved a lot. But it’s difficult when you’re picking specialist positions.”
Henry Slade, who impressed during his international debut alongside alongside Burgess in August, was also picked in the centres and is likely to cover a number of positions in the backs.
Elsewhere, Ben Morgan secured his place in he final line-up as one of the backs, while Kieran Brookes was picked ahead of loose-head Alex Corbisiero and George Kruis was named over Dave Attwood in the second row.
Centre Billy Twelvetrees, number eight Nick Easter, hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and flanker Calum Clarke also missed out on selection to become of the 31.
“It’s really positive that we have such depth and options to choose from,” said Lancaster of the team. “Selection wasn’t easy and it is tough to leave anyone out but it’s important to stress that the players not in this group are still part of our wider squad and could come in at any point.”
“With three weeks to go before we play Fiji we feel we are in good shape as we head into next Saturday’s game against Ireland.”