Jonny May is the leading contender to complete England’s complement of wings at the World Cup after being described by Stuart Lancaster as the star performer of the summer training camp.
Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell are certain to be included among the final 31-man squad, leaving May, Semesa Rokoduguni, Marland Yarde and Chris Ashton to battle it out for the last available place.
Lancaster, England’s head coach, has revealed it is May who has caught the eye during three weeks of training at Pennyhill Park and a fortnight in Denver.
“Jonny has been the stand-out performer in the squad so far. He’s been really excellent. He’s really got the bit between his teeth,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster insists Owen Farrell must excel during the World Cup warm-up matches if he is displace George Ford at fly-half.
Ford took advantage of Farrell’s injury-enforced absence during the 2015 Six Nations by bringing a new dimension to the Red Rose attacking game and remains the incumbent in the position.
When the two faced off for Bath and Saracens in the Premiership final two months later, it was Farrell who emerged as the outstanding playmaker in a one-sided afternoon at Twickenham.
Opinions are divided over who should be England’s fly-half with the creative spark offered by Ford offset by the reliability and temperament of Farrell, while Danny Cipriani is an outsider in the race at 10.
“George was exceptional for us during the Six Nations and for Bath beyond that, so Owen’s going to have to go over and beyond that to get the shirt back off him,” he said.
“Danny obviously has to then get himself above those two to get his opportunity. I’ll create opportunities for all of them and that will help dictate.”
Al Ain Amblers duo Devante Steele and Tomasi Tirikula believe that you write off Emirati rugby players at your peril.
Despite the assumption many might make that Emiratis and rugby do not mix, the American and Fijian teenagers hoping to make the UAE Under-20 squad for the two legs of the Asian RFU Under-20 7s this month have more of an insight into the deceptively deep well of talent among Emirati rugby circles.
Amblers are renowned as a club rich in Fijian flair, but Steele and Tirikula insist there is an increasingly heavy Emirati influence in the Garden City.
Both have been part of Roelof Kotze’s U-20s training camp for the last few weeks, where there has been a large Al Ain contingent.
The expats have been joined by some familiar faces and insist their Arabic club mates are nowhere near as helpless as the re-introduction of expats to the national sevens set-up would have you believe.
American centre Steele said he is excited about the prospect of being selectedfor the Malaysia and Hong Kong legs of the Asian 7s being played on August 15-16 and 21-22 respectively.
“Most of the boys I know because they’re from Al Ain. It’s familiar having some club-mates in the UAE set-up and I think it will improve the team,” said Steele, 18.
“We’re going to compete and the Emirati guys are not joking around, they’re serious players. They’re ready to play and I’m excited to see where it goes and what they do.”
Fijian hooker Tirikula, 17, is amazed by the progress his Emirati team-mates have made in the last two years, particularly the likes of Ebrahim Doraee, Khalid Al Junaibi, Younes Al Blooshi and Saif Al Shamsi.
“It’s not a complete surprise to us. We’ve known about their talent for a while,” said Tirikula.
“When we first started with them at Al Ain they weren’t that experienced but they’ve caught up so much. They’ve only been taught for two years but play like they’ve played for five or six.”
The progress made, according to Tirikula, is down to the efforts of UAE Rugby Federation and Al Ain rugby development officer Sami Smara.
“They’ve been coached well by Sami, who went to Fiji and brought the Fijian skills here. The way he trains the local boys is basically the same as in Fiji,” he said.
Like many expats, Chris Marshall’s stint in the UAE was supposed to be brief. Now he stands on the verge of winning an international rugby cap.
The Abu Dhabi Harlequins winger came to the Emirates for six-months in 2012. Three years later he’s still here and hoping to win a place in Roelof Kotze’s sevens squad for the Asian Sevens Series in a month’s time.
He’s also hoping to be part of the 15-a-side team too, having heard glowing reports of the UAE’s tour to Malaysia in May.
Now that he qualifies, Marshall wants to grab his international chance with both hands and play for the UAE in any format.
“I’d love to be involved with the 15s next year and I think they can win that league (Division II of the Asia Rugby Championship),” said Marshall.
“I spoke to Matt Hutchings at Saracens and Ed Lewsey at Quins and they both said how brilliant the Malaysia tour was.”
The Englishman, 25, qualifies for the UAE this year and has been training with the senior sevens squad for the last few weeks. He is desperate to be part of a UAE team hoping to break into Asia’s top six after finishing rock bottom of 12 teams in last year’s series.
“Our chances are good. We’ve got some outstanding expat and local players,” said Marshall, a former Newcastle Falcons sevens player.
“Hopefully we can combine the two to be competitive in these tournaments. We want to start climbing back up the ladder.”
The shortened format of the game is arguably his favourite and Marshall is part of the senior sevens team preparing for the Asian Sevens Series legs in Shanghai on September 5-6 and Colombo on October 11-12.
“The players certainly think that the top six is achievable,” said Marshall.
“We have to. It’s why we play, to get to that top level and against the likes of Hong Kong and China.
“With the players we’ve got that’s where we belong. There’s been a few lean years but this is something that’s growing and I think there’s real potential. We’re going to go there confident and believe we can win the tournament.”
Kotze, the UAE’s performance manager, has determined that both the senior and Under-20 UAE sides will be a blend of expat and Emirati players for the next few years after the UAE failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Marshall believes the combination of the two sets of players is a recipe for success.
“It’s a really good set-up to be involved with and there’s a lot of talent around. Hopefully we can put that onto the pitch,” said the Quins’ flyer.
“Given rugby’s not a major sport in the UAE, I’ve been blown away by some of the Emirati talent. There’s some serious and genuine talent coming through. That’s really struck me, there’s genuine potential.”