And now there is 30. Andy Robinson has named his squad for the autumn international series and the overall impression is positive. This selection represents a good start for the England manager. He has jettisoned the faithful he stood by for too long when out of form because of historic loyalty. Too many players for too long, survived in the squad or team due solely to reputation and blind trust.
The net result was a tired and jaded feel to the team. The dropping of players like Julian White and Graham Rowntree of Leicester seems almost a symbolic break with the old order. It may be tough on the individuals involved but it has to be taken as a positive development.
The starting fifteen will be fascinating but before Robinson selects his team there is plenty of rugby to be played. Hopefully form and fitness will merit more consideration as a factor behind selection than it did last year.
Mike Ruddock has a different concern when it comes to picking his team. The enforced rest period that Wales' centrally contracted players have been forced to obey leaves Ruddock with nothing but last season's form to go on as he weighs up his options.
Martyn Williams made a point that professionals take a week or two to hit their stride, an assertion the first two weeks of the Guinness Premiership bore out. With only a month until New Zealand face the Grand Slam champions it leaves perilous little time for players to prove form and Ruddock to accurately evaluate the scant evidence available.
The RFU may have bleated about players ignoring the seriously simplified rest period but it could make life easier for Robinson than Ruddock when it comes to taking on the Southern Hemisphere in November.
Now to October and the months first batch of questions...
Have a great week, Stuart Barnes.
England's number two
Stuart, Considering Steve Thompson's lack of form and recent experience in the back-row, are we to assume that Lee Mears is being regarded as England's No.1 hooker? Bath supporters will be aware of his considerable talent and will be thrilled that after so long of playing second fiddle at Bath he is being recognised for his hard work and tenacity. Matt, Bath.
Stuart says: Matt, I think Bath fans will be jumping the gun if they assume Lee Mears is going to leapfrog Thompson into the England starting line up. On bare form there is no real debate but selection is about more than just form. Thompson has long been held in the highest regard by England's selectors, despite indifferent international form last season. That will count against Mears as will the exclusion of Julian White. Minus the Leicester scrummager, Robinson will not want to leave out the experience, bulk and scrum power of Thompson. Also, it should be remembered that whilst his club form is still indifferent, his international performance for the Lions against New Zealand in the second test was one of the better efforts by an Englishman last summer. Taking all this into account, the potent power of the Bath man looks most likely to be utilised from the bench.
Stuart, you made your feelings pretty clear about the uncontested scrums shennanigans on Saturday at Kingsholm, so what in your view is the answer to the problem? Also, what is your view about Dylan Hartley, who was not fit to scrummage on Saturday at 16:00, being named on the bench for an 'A' team game 48 hours later? Might a player who isn't fit to scrummage in a GP game not be best served by an enforced lay-off of a specified period of time (just like a horse that isn't 'off' gets banned from running for 90 days!) Colin Boag, Winchester
Colin, I think we all agree (even the Saints fans) that the visitors found a loophole outside the spirit of the sport and exploited it. It is easy to tut and condemn and many have, but this is a serious business and sportsmen will show no less compunction that say, a businessman, in finding a loophole to prevent paying taxes. These guys are paid for results and whilst neutrals might not like it, I can understand the cynical attitude of the Saints touchline. They are not the first to scramble the rules regarding the scrum and nor will they be the last until perhaps a specialist 8th sub is added, available only as an extra front row cover...If the team still claim to be incapable of scrumming with three covering front row players, then the referee, if suspicious, has the ability to give the opposition a penalty on every put in.
I find it a little rich of Dean Ryan complaining about uncontested scrums when he and Gloucester pulled the same shot against Leicester at Northampton in the Powergen semi - no one was there then to defend Leicester's corner when the rules of the competition said that Gloucester should have conceded the tie - perhaps that is were Northampton got the idea from? Peggy Nicholls, Nottingham.
Stuart Says: Peggy, Read above, you are quite right but don't shoot the coaches, it is the rules of the game that have to be sorted out first.
Given everyone's frustration with uncontested scrums, mightn't it be an idea to have lineouts instead? Gabriel Fadipe, London.
Stuart says: NO. Scrums are an intrisic part of union. It is a sub plot within the game and a vital means of creating an attacking platform. The severity of the scrum is one of the main differences between union and league and that barrier should be maintained.
Right or left wing solution
Stuart, When I played rugby years ago the winger (me) always used to throw in at line-outs on my side of the field - underarm, two handed, usually with a soggy aneavy leather ball and not very accurately!!! So you can guess how long ago it was. Then an American called Dawkins played (for Oxford or Cambridge I think it was) and introduced the one handed overarm throw from American Football - he must have had very big hands! Anyway my query is, why does the hooker always throw in? There's always lots of criticism and surely if he's the best hooker but not the best thrower, then another player (the best thrower) should take the throws - one of the props for instance. And why not rotate the throw? So why don't we see this in rugby - there's no law against it is there? Regards, Kit Boddington, Newnham, Nr Baldock, Hertfordshire.
Stuart says: Kit, You are not the first to wonder why the hooker throws in, especially when others may be more accurate. Nor will you be the last. I suspect it is only a matter of time before one coach goes back to the old cycle of another player (most probably a prop) throwing in. I say a prop because wings ability to strike first phase from the set piece would disappear and few wings would have the strength to lift a jumper in the manner of say, Carl Hayman or Andrew Sheridan. A hooker with the power of Steve Thompson would have no problem. Given time the obsession with dodgy throwing hookers will end.
Zero tolerance for zero tolerance
Stuart, I have just seen the new squad for England's Autumn internationals and whilst I welcome some of the changes and decisions (inclusion of Alex Brown, the return of Stuart Abbott, the resting of Jonny Wilkinson) I cannot believe that Andy Robinson has dropped Julian White. Whilst England are looking to develop their game surely hey need a stable platform in the pack and a front row with Sheridan and White would provide that platform. Matt Stevens has been unconvincing in his play and I am not sure he has the necessary in the tight - and if he is struggling in the tight play how mobile will he be in the loose? I am not sure that Phil Vickery is back to his best yet and so I think Julian White should be first choice tighthead. Mike Swinson, Kingswinford.
Mike, I know a few gnarled old props who are not so certain about the scrummaging quality of White. Some believe he appears dominant in England because the referees are intimidated by his mystique. I am not sure about that but I do know that White looks less than imposing for club or country against the serious scrummagers of France and New Zealand were not intimidated last summer. Also, bare in mind, the mediocrity (kind mood today) of the Australian pack but the infrequency with which they are whistled out of a match because of marked inferiority in this area and maybe there is another reason to go the mobile route against the Wallabies in a game both sides need to win.
Thanks for some fascinating questions and ideas this week, keep them coming. Have an enjoyable week, Stuart Barnes