A few eyebrows were raised when England head coach Eddie Jones named just two scrum-halves in his 31-man squad that will travel to the World Cup in Japan.
Many nations are taking three number nines, but England will have stand-off George Ford covering the pivotal position at the showpiece event behind Ben Youngs and Willi Heinz.
New Zealand-born Heinz, who qualifies to play for England through his grandmother, beat off the challenge from the likes of Ben Spencer and Joe Simpson to make the trip along with Youngs.
The 32-year-old Gloucester man is set to win his fourth cap off the bench this evening against Italy at St James’ Park in Newcastle with Leicester Tigers’ Youngs, 30, starting.
And while Andy Gomarsall, the ex-scrum-half who earned 35 England caps and played in the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, believes it is a “slight risk” to only travel to Asia with two specialists, he has backed Youngs and Heinz to star for the team in Pool C and beyond into the knock-out stages.
“Ben has shown why he is regarded as one of the best nines in the world because he has kept up a high standard of play for such a long period which is phenomenal,” Gomarsall told TRU.
“He is world class, so let’s hope he stays injury free because he is a big part of what this England team is all about. He sets the tempo and with 88 caps to his name knows how to handle big occasions.
Gloucester and Northampton defied the 'pre-season odds' to finish in the top four of the #GallagherPrem in 2018/19 and for two of their players, they were certainly outside bets to be included in England's World Cup squad... #RWC2019https://t.co/ctehYsyQ1l pic.twitter.com/j0IECXcUhD— Talking Rugby Union (@TalkRugbyUnion) August 21, 2019
“Some unbelievable talent has been left behind [in terms of scrum-halves] and there would have been no arguments from me if Eddie had picked any of them, but Willi has come from nowhere.
“I had the privilege of talking to Willi previously about his game and being a leader at Gloucester and of late he really has taken his game to another level.
“He deserves to be in the World Cup squad and from what I hear he is a really good influence around the dressing room and has come in and made a big impact on and off the pitch.
“With the game the way it is these days, the replacement nine is needed to bring energy during the last quarter of games and I think Willi can do that.
“It is not a massive risk to just take two scrum-halves to the tournament, but obviously it is a slight risk. Thankfully when I played Clive Woodward and Brian Ashton took three scrum-halves.
“All three scrum-halves were used in the two World Cups that I went to, but Eddie knows exactly what he is doing, he has his plan in place and will know he wants to pick for each pool game.
“He feels that he needs more support at outside centre, wing and full-back than at nine. He has taken his stance on how England are going to play and I would never criticise him.”
“England can go deep in this tournament”
So, having been part of a squad that won the World Cup in 2003 and reached the final in 2007, does Gomarsall believe England can do well this time around?
“I feel that England can go deep in this tournament, I have been really impressed with what I have seen of late,” the former player, who will be out in Japan for part of the event working as an ambassador for the Tokyo Tourism Board, said.
“The class in the squad is unquestionable, it is now just about consistency and putting seven back-to-back performances together on the biggest stage of all.
“That is the question mark for England, can they do that? The pool matches with France and Argentina are the big ones and if they can do well in those it really will give them momentum heading into the knock-out stages.
“We have seen England teams fall at the final hurdle in the Six Nations, so it is just whether they can keep their composure to keep the foot on the gas right until the final.
“I think they can do very well, can they win it? Time will tell, but I think it is a really open tournament and England have a great chance.”
Record breaker for charity
Before he heads out to Japan you could forgive Gomarsall for wanting to put his feet up.
That is because recently he played his part as rugby charities School of Hard Knocks (SOHK) and Wooden Spoon broke the world record for the longest game of rugby union.
Previously the record stood at 29 hours and 15 minutes, but squads from SOHK and Wooden Spoon gathered at Hazelwood, the base of Premiership Rugby team London Irish, to try and play for over 30 hours.
Playing the game under official laws and with Scottish referee Graham Allen in the middle, the two teams battled hard in tortuous conditions that saw the mercury rise to 33°C.
Stamina, hydration and player management, through tactical use of substitutions, were therefore key to the teams’ success, with medics and physios running repairs, taping up players, and applying ice, while volunteers regularly ran on with energy snacks, water and sun cream.
They broke the record with a time of 30 hours and 30 minutes - and raised lots of money for both charities - with the scoreboard showing that SOHK had won 2,154-1,163!
After a difficult 30 hours and 30 minutes of rugby, 545 tries, 290 conversions and four drop goals, Wooden Spoon and @SoHKCharity completed the longest match of rugby union. Read more about this amazing challenge here: https://t.co/0LTv56MRTu #LMRU2019 #helpingkidsthroughrugby— Wooden Spoon (@charityspoon) August 28, 2019
Gomarsall said: “I don’t think anyone could have foreseen temperatures of over 30°C, which were incredibly draining, as if playing rugby for 30 hours wasn’t difficult enough!
“The guys bonded throughout the experience and supported each other, drawing strength from what we were setting out to achieve and the great causes that any funds raised will go towards.
“On behalf of all the players I’d ask that anyone who can donate to School of Hard Knocks and Wooden Spoon in support of this initiative to please do so.”
SOHK delivers life-changing programmes across the UK for both children and adults while Wooden Spoon believes that through the power of rugby every child and young person, no matter what their background, has access to the same opportunities.
To find out more, visit schoolofhardknocks.org.uk and woodenspoon.org.uk
England face Italy in their final World Cup warm-up match at St James’ Park, Newcastle, this evening at 7.45pm