He”s the monster No 8 born in England and wanted by Wales. It”s the battle for… Big Ben
Tussle: Ben Morgan could play for either England or Wales
England are optimistic they can win a cross-border tussle with Wales for the services of Scarlets No 8 Ben Morgan — with the issue due to come to a head in the next fortnight.
The 22-year-old was born in Bristol but will qualify for Wales on residency in time for the start of the Six Nations in February. He was approached in the summer to represent the Saxons in the Churchill Cup but rejected that opportunity to keep his options open.
Stuart Lancaster, in his role as Saxons coach, met Morgan to outline England’s No 8 pecking order and emphasise the potential to force his way into early Test contention due to the lack of prime contenders in that position.
Having now been installed as caretaker head coach of the national team, Lancaster is understood to be keen to include Morgan when he announces senior and Saxons squads on January 11.
England are hopeful that Morgan will choose to represent the land of his birth and there are increasingly strong rumours that he will do so. But the player has been coy on the matter publicly and Wales coach Warren Gatland has made it clear he is ready to pick him at the earliest opportunity.
Speaking in May, Gatland said: ‘I have met Ben and told him he should wait (to choose) until he qualifies for Wales in January. That will give him a choice. I told him he would have been selected for the Wales squad to play the Baa-Baas (in June), if he was qualified for Wales.’
While England are optimistic, they remain vulnerable to a Welsh ambush due to the different set-ups in the two countries.
The Saxons act as a bridge between club rugby and the Test team, but Wales do not run an ‘A’ side, so Gatland is forced to trust his instincts by pitching players straight into the senior ranks. His trump card would be to promise immediate international opportunities. If Morgan plays for the Saxons he would be ineligible for any future Wales call-up.
Plan: Stuart Lancaster hopes he can convince Morgan to play for England
He grew up in Kingswood, Gloucestershire and played for local club Dursley, before a stint at Cinderford. He represented his county Under 20 side and scored a try at Twickenham when they won a National Championship. Moving to Wales to advance his career, he spent time at Merthyr and with Cardiff Blues Under 20s before switching to Llanelli and the Scarlets.
Speaking about his international quandary at the end of last season, Morgan said: ‘I have had all of my opportunities in Wales, but I was born in England. It’s such a hard decision and if I was in that position I would have to give it a lot of thought.’
The No 8 landscape has changed in Wales with the emergence of Tongan-born Dragon Toby Faletau at the World Cup. Andy Powell and Ryan Jones are experienced alternatives.
On the wane: Nick Easter is approaching his final years
In England, Nick Easter has long been the man in possession, but the 33-year-old is unlikely to be around for the next World Cup. Sportsmail understands Lancaster has met the Harlequins veteran to discuss his future, having stated his desire to freshen up the squad with youngsters.
But Easter’s fine recent form may allow him to prolong his Test career.
When Easter was injured during the World Cup, James Haskell deputised effectively but he is in Japan and New Zealand until the summer.
Gloucester captain Luke Narraway is another prime contender.
Then there are the overseas options, Leicester’s Kiwi No 8 Thomas Waldrom went to the World Cup as an injury replacement, while Saracens’ outstanding South African, Ernst Joubert, qualifies for England in June and wants to be considered.
As an indication of the fluid nature of nationality in the professional era, it would be ironic one day to see England, with Waldrom or Joubert, facing a Wales team including Morgan.
Meanwhile, Northampton are expected to announce on Thursday that their captain, England hooker Dylan Hartley, has signed a new contract.