On a family holiday to Rhodes, Danny Care was lying on a sun lounger when the text message arrived from Eddie Jones asking him to call as soon as possible. He knew what was coming.
Phone conversations with Jones do not involve any exchange of pleasantries or chats about the weather. If the England head coach rings, it is generally to impart bad news. Despite being half tempted to ignore the message, Care called back. The conversation lasted less than a minute and confirmed his fears. He had been left out of the World Cup training squad.
For the third consecutive tournament, England’s second most capped scrum-half faced the prospect of having his nose pressed up against the glass of the sport’s showpiece event. His burning ambition of winning a World Cup, which had fuelled his 11-year international career, was seemingly at an end.
“When you see the name, you know what is going to happen,” Care told Telegraph Sport. “I am big enough and it has happened to me enough times that I can accept it. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like it always does when you are dropped. Particularly for a World Cup. That’s my last chance to play in one.
“It was not anger, just disappointment that this had been my aim for so long. Since I won my first cap in 2008, the reason I was there was to win a World Cup with England. I never really had a proper crack to help the team to do that. In 2015, I sat in the stands and didn’t touch a ball before we were out. Since Eddie came in, he put a clock up on the wall counting down the weeks, days and hours until the World Cup final. I felt I was part of that mission and now I am not there to finish it off.”
It is difficult to discern the logic behind Jones’s scrum-half selections. For three years, Care and Ben Youngs exclusively shared the No 9 shirt. Then in World Cup year, Care was jettisoned with Ben Spencer and Willi Heinz, who between them then possessed a total of three caps to Care’s 84, included in the training squad. Gloucester’s Heinz was eventually chosen for the final World Cup squad.
It would have hurt no matter who was selected instead of him, but Care is honest enough to admit that the pain is that much sharper for it being Heinz, who spent the first 29 years of his life in Christchurch, New Zealand, and qualifies for England through his grandmother.
“I would be lying if I said it didn’t sting a little bit more,” Care said. “It took me by surprise that they had gone for Willi. That’s not his fault.
“I have got nothing against Willi. He is a nice guy. I’ve met him a few times, played against him a few times. I never knew he had aspirations to play for England. I never knew he could play for England. When he came into that Barbarians week, he took me back a bit because I didn’t know how long he had been in the country or that he had an English grandmother.
“It was interesting to see him there and then to get the call ahead of you … obviously it hurts. I think with people from other countries, I have probably never experienced it in my position before, when you see guys come in like Brad Shields, whether through the residency or the grandmother. I had never been pushed out because of someone from another country. I had probably been a bit naive to that and just accepted it happens to other people, felt sorry for them, but thought it would never happen to me. But then when it happens to you, it does sting. It really hurts.”
Care still retains a faint hope that fate could yet open the door for him to return. “He [Jones] just said, ‘Stay sharp, stay ready, you never know,’ ” he explained. “I know Ben and Dan [Robson] have been in the training squad ahead of me so I don’t know if he will go for them or if something happened to one of the nines then he would want a bit more experience.”
The 32-year-old certainly knows from bitter experience how injury can strike, having been ruled out of the 2011 World Cup in a warm-up game. In 2015, Care was included but only as third choice and his sole game time came against Uruguay, by which time England had been eliminated.
“In 2015 doing all the training and being part of some of the worst training camps I have ever been involved in, being run into the ground, thinking we could win the World Cup and then not touching a ball until we were out of the tournament, it just felt like we had wasted our time,” Care said. “I have only played one World Cup game in 84 caps, which must be some sort of record. And not a good one to have.”
Under Stuart Lancaster, Care was never told why he dropped from first choice to third choice. Jones has at least provided an explanation and has since sat down with Care to go over his reasoning. “The one thing about Eddie is that he has always been honest with me,” Care said. “He has always said why I am not playing and given me a reason and things to work on. With World Cup selection, he said I was not sharp enough towards the end of the season and he is going with other people.”
Yet there is a world of difference between receiving an explanation and agreeing with it. Statistics show that per 80 minutes, Care scored more tries (0.63), made more metres (29.9) and provided more try assists (0.63) than any of his English rivals in the Gallagher Premiership last season. Care still firmly believes that he can make a difference, a view that was reinforced by watching England labour to a 13-6 defeat against Wales.
“Watching the game at the weekend, it felt like it was screaming out for a change in that second half and that’s something I have done well for England in the past years,” Care said. “Just changing it up. If you watched the game, I don’t think we were at our attacking best. Sometimes you need something a bit different to come on and change in the game.
“Willi is a good player. Gloucester had a good year this year. He is maybe what they are looking for in terms of adding a bit of control coming on for Ben, but I think I can provide that. I am probably labelled as a different type of player but I think I have got enough experience to control a game.
“Coming off the bench in the past I feel I have added stuff to the team. I completely respect Eddie’s decision if he wants to go down a different route to me.”
In truth, the writing had been on the wall since Care was “rested” by Jones for the tour to South Africa last year. Recalled for the autumn internationals, Care made a strong impression coming off the bench against New Zealand and South Africa. Then came the match against Japan in which he started with a bang, scoring a trademark try, only for the game to fall apart. Care became the fall guy, having thrown an intercept and kicked the ball out at half-time with England trailing. Though the England coaches backed that decision, he was dropped for the next match against Australia. And with that the door closed.
The silver lining has been in spending the summer with his wife, Jodie, and five-year-old son Blake, who starts school in September. Jodie is also due to give birth to their second child two days after the World Cup final.
“The time I have had with them is invaluable,” Care said. “My wife knows that I am loving being there but as a professional rugby player I would have loved the opportunity to be out in Japan.”