The previous theblitzdefence article looked at Lancaster’s Dilemma; should the English coach Stuart Lancaster start fixing his first choice XV now with the Rugby World Cup only 7 games away? Indeed with 3 of those games being summer friendlies – which are often of questionable merit in terms of duplicating the intensity of a competitive test match, Lancaster only has 4 games left to shape his first choice team.
His decisions will be made more difficult by the long term injuries to a number of key players. The London Wasps second row Joe Launchbury for example, was a revelation during the 2013/14 season and cemented his place in England’s boiler room with a blend of rugged set piece basics allied with strong ball carrying and an eye for an offload. A neck injury however, has sidelined him since the start of November 2014 and he will miss the entire 2015 6 Nations tournament.
Those players that have stepped up in his wake, such as Bath’s David Attwood have made the jersey their own with eye-catching performances. Does Lancaster back Attwood to be his number one choice throughout the 6 Nations and on to the summer’s friendlies and aim for continuity or does he attempt to bring Launchbury quickly back in to the international fold with an eye on him being England’s number 4?
Although England have a large number of international standard players Lancaster will have to prune these down to 30 players for the World Cup. We look through his likely choice for the squad and his first choice XV.
Only two players have played all of the last 10 England matches – the captain Chris Robshaw and the spiky Harlequins fullback Mike Brown. Brown has been an ever present for Lancaster recently and has the 15 spot nailed down. The second spot may go to someone who can also function on the wing which brings in Anthony Watson as a contender for a squad place.
Outside bets include Alex Goode and Mathew Tait making a late run for the back up 15 role.
England have gone through wings like Gavin Henson has gone through clubs over the last few years. Those that have recently turned in the 11 or 14 shirt include Chris Ashton, Semesa Rokoduguni, Jack Nowell, Marlan Yarde, Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May and Anthony Watson.
The momentum seems to be with Jonny May and Anthony Watson as the starting wings which means an almighty battle for the final wing slot which will probably go to Marlan Yarde.
This is arguably the most difficult position to choose Lancaster’s picks with 7 different players pulling on the 12 or 13 shirt in the last 10 games. No sooner has a player established himself with some decent displays he has been struck down with a serious injury….oh, and there is that guy from rugby league that may press for a place as well.
Billy Twelvetrees has perhaps flattered to deceive in the England jersey and although on paper he looks like a perfect blend of power, pace, balance and footballing ability at some point he will need to exert himself on a game. We think he will be chosen as a back up along with Manu Tuilagi who has struggled for fitness and form since the British and Irish Lions tour. He is though England’s player with a bit of magic on his day and his ability to also step in to the wing position also means he is worth a gamble.
This leaves a number of unhappy players missing out with Lancaster opting for a Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph centre partnership.
Having your dad as your coach will always increase your chances of getting picked so Owen Farrell and George Ford will travel with the party. Who will be first choice by the time the World Cup comes around is a difficult call but we will plump for Farrell given his experience.
It’s nice to see Ben Youngs rediscover his form which makes him such a classy operator at scrum half. He has pace to keep back rows on their toes, an accurate box kick and the ability to bring runners off him through sniping sorties. He is the first choice scrum half.
Assuming England only take two scrum halves the second choice will be Wigglesworth. Danny Care and Lee Dickson have recently lost ground.
England are blessed with two good number 8s in Ben Morgan and Billy Vunipola. Neither are the most athletic or destructive players in their position but both are excellent ball carriers who will give England that vital go-forward platform. Last week the much vaunted Welsh back row struggled to contain the powerful surges of Vunipola which negated the Warburton/Lydiate tackle-jackal combination. He may have the physique of an ageing veteran for Old Somethignstonians but appearances can be deceptive.
Chris Robshaw isn’t the archetypal openside but what he does is effective. Lancaster’s first choice blind side is Tom Wood but with his recent injury James Haskell has stepped up and put in perhaps his best display for England in the opening game of this year’s 6 Nations against Wales. When Haskell is good he is very good but Tom Wood’s all round game gives him the edge.
Assuming Tom Croft has a strong end to the season he should pick up one of the back up spots and with probably one more place up for grabs it is really is a lottery to see who is in pole position to get on the plane (or “get in the taxi” given they are only going to Twickenham). Nick Easter (probably not), Tom Johnson, Matt Kvesic? Who knows.
This has developed in to a huge area of strength for England with probably 4 high quality locks to choose from. The only issue is that Lancaster’s first choice pair Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes are both injured. Time is running out for the British Lion Geoff Parling to secure a spot and it may be a bit early for George Kruis. The third spot will go to David Attwood who could easily force himself in to the starting team at the expense of Joe Launchbury who is going to struggle for game time ahead of the World Cup.
Lancaster has mad his first choice front row pretty clear over the past season or so with Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley and David Wilson starting as a unit for 5 of the last 10 games. It might be worth Lancaster trying out a few more hookers because it isn’t guaranteed Dylan Hartley won’t be suspended for the start of the tournament or for a part of the tournament given his predilection for self-combustion.
Tom Youngs, Rob Webber, Kieran Brookes, Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola will also travel.
This is a strong England squad but it is the coaching of Stuart Lancaster and his team that makes the recent team performances more than the sum of the individual parts. On their home ground it is only New Zealand that they should fear and if they can replicate their performance against the All Blacks in 2012 in this championship they can go a long way.