England’s incredible victory over New Zealand will mean very little if it does not provide a platform to improve on the fairly average win ratio achieved during Stuart Lancaster’s short tenure as England coach. The men in white, and now sometimes purple, won just 50% of their fixtures in 2012 (6/12) and only managed one win over the big three southern hemisphere rugby powers from six attempts.
Despite the unlikely win over the All Blacks, Lancaster must not be afraid to rotate his playing staff if England are to win a first Grand Slam in 10 years.
Injuries, possible suspensions, and the complex rules governing the elite squad make it nigh on impossible to predict how many changes will be made in the Six Nations squad. But based on the first half of the season a number of players should make way for returning experienced internationals and some young, but very much in form, Premiership stars.
In the forwards, the props are likely to stay the same but Dylan Hartley looks certain to be recalled at hooker, at the expense of David Paice. Joe Gray, who missed out on selection in the autumn because of injury, could be called up as a third hooker and as security to cover Hartley’s recent injury issues (taking the place of a back row forward). Such was Tom Youngs’ form in the autumn that Hartley, who captained the side in the 14-14 draw the third test in South Africa last summer, is by no means a guaranteed starter.
Joe Launchbury, the QBE Man of the Series in the autumn despite only starting two matches, and a fit Courtney Lawes should join the ever improving Geoff Parling in the second row. Tom Palmer or Mouritz Botha could both be selected as a fourth lock cover but Lancaster could also use the extra spot for a versatile second row / back row option.
Tom Croft, an injury casualty since last April after an awkward collision with England outcast Nick Easter, should fill this void and must be recalled, even if he has only played 50 minutes of Premiership rugby this season. I regard him as one of England’s truly world class players and the twice-capped Lion is certainly experienced enough to be thrown in at the Six Nations deep end, probably initially from the bench, in February and March.
The reconfigured pack could also see Thomas Waldrom, Phil Dowson and Tom Johnson miss out but provide exciting opportunities for youngsters Billy Vunipola and Matt Kvesic. Vunipola, brother of England loosehead Mako, has personified Wasps’ resurgence this season, with his trademark barnstorming runs and fierce tackling. Similarly Kvesic is beginning to show the potential he displayed in 2011 when he was part of the England U20 side that included current elite squad members Mako Vunipola, Joe Launchbury and Owen Farrell, which lost narrowly to the Baby Blacks in the Junior World Cup final.
Lancaster and his coaching team face equally difficult decisions in selecting the backline, especially at fly half and full back.
Toby Flood, England’s most capped player currently in the elite squad, should make way for Freddie Burns, who has been the Premiership’s outstanding fly half this season and looked reassuringly confident in his cameo 15 minute role first cap against New Zealand.
Flood could be banned for at least the start of the Six Nations, following an unlikely tip tackle against Worcester last weekend, but regardless, with Owen Farrell putting in his most composed international performance and upstaging the immortal Dan Carter at Twickenham, the former Newcastle standoff should miss out on this occassion.
England do not necessarily need three fly halves given Alex Goode’s emergence as an excellent passer and playmaker from full back. Goode has played fly half for his club side Saracens and frequently slots in at first receiver for both club and country, and will hopefully recover from a recent shoulder injury in time for the tournament.
England have a wealth of talent at full back where Ben Foden, returning from injury, and Mike Brown should also feature. Both players have been selected on the wing in the past year by Lancaster and are likely to join Goode in the elite squad. Lancaster will then have the unenviable task of choosing between these three talented performers in his starting lineup.
Other back line changes include choosing the patient Billy Twelvetrees at centre, at the expense of the unlucky Anthony Allen or Jordan Turner Hall, who could both be dropped given that Farrell and Burns can also play in the centres.
On the wings, Ugo Monye and Charlie Sharples are under enormous pressure from the Wasps duo of Tom Varndell, who already has three international tries in four appearances to his name, and the electric Christian Wade, who stand first and second in the Premiership try scoring table respectively. Marland Yarde is also hot on their heels but Wade could join Ashton as one of only two out and out wingers, if Foden and Brown are both selected.
Finally, a smart move by Lancaster would be to invite Kyle Eastmond and Joel Tomkins, two ex-England Rugby League internationals, into elite training camps. Both players are still learning the finer arts of the 15 a side code, but with the 2015 Rugby World Cup now under three years away they should be given brutal exposure to international rugby as soon as possible.
My Elite England squad (32)*
Chris Robshaw (c)
*French based players, and Nick Easter, were not considered for selection.
Pure fantasy? If you could pick any 32 English players from the Premiership what changes would you make? Should Lancaster be able to make unlimited changes?
By Alastair Pickering
Stuart Lancaster will confirm the Elite Player Squad for the Six Nations on Wednesday – we’ll have it here on The Rugby Blog as soon as it’s announced.