England’s 23 for Australia: has Lancaster got it right?

On Tuesday night, Stuart Lancaster announced his 23-man squad to take on Australia in the opening match of the QBE Internationals, and selection debates which have been ongoing for the last month have finally been put to bed. Thanks to injuries to stalwarts such as Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt, and the impressive form of a number of players on the cusp of the England’s first XV, this selection has felt like one of the most highly anticipated in recent years.

The losses of both Alex Corbisiero (knee) and Geoff Parling (concussion) to injury have come at a bad time, but the silver lining is that both players are expected to recover in time for England’s second test of the series, when they take on Argentina at Twickenham. They also both play in positions of depth for England, and although they will be missed, there are other areas of the squad where injuries would arguably be more impactful. Mako Vunipola will be eager to replicate his summer form with the British and Irish Lions against familiar opposition, and will most likely take Corbisiero’s place in the front row.

Launchbury and Lawes are the favourites to form an intriguing combination in England’s engine room, with both players in superb form for their club sides over the last month. Critics will say that England’s set piece may have lost its edge with the absence of Corbisiero and Parling, and whilst there is truth in that statement, the increased physicality and mobility of the England pack is certainly something to look forward to.

The retentions of captain Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood came as no surprise, but Lancaster’s decision to opt for two number eights has caused some intrigue as to who will start come Saturday. Billy Vunipola’s form has certainly eclipsed Ben Morgan’s thus far, but Lancaster is a big fan of Morgan, and he could be given an opportunity to show his poor club form is a thing of the past. Either way, Lancaster seems to have found a nice balance in the back row. If the inexperienced Vunipola starts, then there is a reliable replacement on the bench, whilst if Morgan starts, Lancaster has the more versatile Vunipola as an option from the bench, with Vunipola recently showing his ability at blindside flanker for club side Saracens.

It certainly won’t have been an easy decision for Lancaster to send Danny Care and Freddie Burns back to their clubs this week, given they are two of the more exciting attacking talents currently in the England setup, but he should be praised for not being afraid to make the unpopular decisions. Lee Dickson is the form scrum half in the Premiership, and deserves his spot, whilst Ben Youngs, who may not have been in the best form this season, is for my money the most well-rounded nine England currently have at their disposal.

Whilst Care’s omission has nothing to do with him playing poorly of late, Burns’ is another story. He has struggled so far this season in an under-performing Gloucester side, and Owen Farrell looks to be a much improved player since his trip Down Under with the Lions, and should start at fly half on Saturday. Toby Flood, a seemingly perennially unpopular selection, is in good form, and given that this series is as much about winning as it is about development, it’s the right call from Lancaster.

The centre combination has been the most talked about situation in English rugby since Tuilagi went down with injury, and barring any monumental selection decisions by Lancaster, should see Billy Twelvetrees and Joel Tomkins line-up in England’s midfield. Luther Burrell is the player who will feel most hard done by considering his sparkling form for Northampton, but the prospect of an inexperienced combination going up against the likes of Christian Leali’ifano and Adam Ashley-Cooper, was probably enough to sway Lancaster’s mind in favour of Twelvetrees at inside centre. Tomkins will be keenly watched by fans and management alike, with both eager to see if he can successfully bring his powerful running and offloading to the international stage.

The wings effectively picked themselves with Marland Yarde and Chris Ashton in such good form, but if either struggles against Australia, Lancaster can turn his attentions to the released Christian Wade for the Argentina match, who has been looking back to his best in the last few weeks, after a relatively slow start to the season. The bigger question comes at fullback, with fans and experts alike seemingly split over who deserves to start – Ben Foden or Mike Brown? Both have been in excellent form, and although Brown has spent more time with England in the last two weeks, Foden’s excellent display for Northampton last weekend, which included two tries, has many people suggesting that Foden is back to his vintage best, and Australia certainly don’t have fond memories of an in-form pairing of him and Ashton at Twickenham.

The fact Brown wasn’t released last weekend does suggest he will get the nod to start on Saturday, and although Foden will certainly be frustrated if that is the case, it should not diminish from Brown’s excellent performances of late. Like Danny Care, Alex Goode’s omission can be blamed on the excellent form and depth at his position, and not on his own failings.

Management and head coaches will rarely publicly state the amount of wins from a series that would qualify as a success, but given the ever-approaching 2015 World Cup, and the recent improvements made by England, anything less than two victories this autumn will almost certainly feel like a failure. Although Australia’s form has improved of late, they are still a significant drop-off in quality from the All Blacks, and I expect Lancaster is quietly confident that he has a squad at his disposal capable of seeing off the challenge of Australia (and Argentina), and if they have momentum on their side, who is to say what might happen in their final game against New Zealand?

by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

30 thoughts on “England’s 23 for Australia: has Lancaster got it right?

  1. I think Bomber has largely got it right, and it looks like he’s actually picking on form (arguably with the exception of Morgan, but realistically who else is there?)

    After the summer it’s a real shame that Kvesic and Burns don’t make the final cut, but that’s their fault, not Lancaster’s. Also a shame that Eastmond and Wade couldn’t be included, but with Foden and Brown in good form and only one back 3 bench spot, they have to be in there.

  2. I actually think the squad picked itself, perfect balance of form without mass changes.

    Decisions to be made I would say are at hooker, number 8, scrum half and full back.

    I’d go Hartley, Vunipola, B.Youngs and Foden. But I’m pretty sure SL will have T.Youngs and Brown in there. In fact, there’s a good chance he will completely disagree with me and select Dickson and Morgan too!

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if Morgan was given the shirt for Aus game with a rocket up his arse saying ‘if you don’t impress, the shirt’s Billy’s for the next two games’. Knowing Vunipola is waiting in the wings would be enough to get most people to pick their game up!

      Would say the Dickson/Youngs decision is the other way round too – Dickson deserves to start, but Youngs probably will. Against Aus I’ve got no qualms with Mako and T Youngs in the front row either – might need to change up for Arg/NZ though.

      1. I was thinking the same about Morgan, but I would rather see Vunipola given the chance against Australia. I also thought that Morgan struggles with 80 minutes, so keeping two 8s in the squad could suggest Morgan starting?

        At 9 I would rather Youngs, he hasn’t been amazing this year but he hasn’t been awful either. He is our best 9 and the Youngs/Farrell axis needs as much game time as possible going into 2015 so unless one of them are woefully out of form or someone comes along and looks world class; I’d play them two. Dickson is in good form, but this is him peaking right now and I’m not a fan of chopping and changing completely from series to series.

  3. I’m really hoping he goes with Billy V at 8 instead of Morgan. Club form has to speak volumes and at the moment Morgan has to miss out.

  4. I would be a little hesitant to have Billy Vunipola in the 23 because I feel that he turns over the ball way too much. I understand he is a good ball carrier, but he doesn’t secure the ball, and those turnovers could affect momentum and maybe the match.

    1. It’s not his job to secure the ball if he’s tackled and brought to ground, it’s the job of the supporting players. At the moment he is playing better and more often than Morgan, and he can play a full 80 minutes, which Morgan has struggled to do in the past. I would start with Vunipola, and bring Morgan on last 20 – 30 minutes for impact. We can always switch the back row about for the last quarter, and move Billy to 6 and have him and Morgan on the pitch!

    2. I must agree that his ball retention skills are poor. Now that he is starting it’s going to be interesting to see whether his game can evolve past just being a big lump who can bounce club players off at the tackle. Somehow I have my doubts but then Morgan did not offer much either so its up to BV to show he has something extra. No 8 to my mind is the one big weakness in England at the moment.

  5. Can see the Aus game being a tough one. The Aussies have nothing to lose and a point to prove. They are seasoned and used to playing with one another. If they play like they did in the last match v NZ, England will be in trouble

    The forwards really need to front up and get on top. Aus are not the most physical side and the England front 5 will really need to impose themselves, clear the rucks quickly and counter-ruck aggressively on Aus ball. If they can starve the Aussie backs of quick, clean ball and put Cooper on the back foot, then we’re likely to see the errors coming into his game again.

    On the flip side – give Genia, Cooper, Folau et al quick clean ball and it will be a long afternoon indeed

    On the scrum-half issue, I’d much prefer Dickson. Youngs seems slow and indecisive at the moment. Dickson does the basics that much better – he’ll get the ball away quickly and direct his forwards and that is exactly what will be needed.

  6. Always have to laugh at the comments about form/merit players. Sorry chaps but class always trumps form and players at this level usually can show the class when needed. If you were going to pick players purely on form you would end up losing just about every game. The only no 9 who has the class to play at international level consistently is Youngs. Morgan is the incumbent no 8 and BV has shown nothing to indicate he will be any better at no 8. I’m not a Morgan fan but he deserves another series of games to show what he has and there is not much else out there.

    Leaving out Goode is a mistake and shows that the coaching staff has no idea which is their better option. This could be a problem. Flood should never start, good club player and that’s where it stops. Pick a younger flyhalf with class and let him come off the bench – only Burns and Ford have anywhere near the class to have longer term international careers. Funny how Goosen who was outplayed by Ford in the u20 WC is in the Bok team after just 60 mins of play after injury, yet Ford is nowhere. Probably says something about how England manage talent.

    1. I assume you mean Andy Goode? Surely you can’t mean Alex? Who failed to score at the weekend, due to having the ball ripped off him by Foden, was side stepped by Manoa and then carried backwards for 10m by Foden whilst attempting, in vain, to stop him scoring a try?

      Alex Goode does have a great rugby brain, fantastic positioning and sweeping at the back, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest (and many things to not suggest) he has the pace or physicality to be a top class international fullback.

      Agree that collectively (RFU and clubs) more needs to be done to help young talent bridge the gap between academy/age group -> premiership -> international. But Lancaster has hardly been reluctant to pick youth, EPS contains many recent U20 graduates, this is one area he has done well.

      Although class is permanent it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick on form. The ABs are pretty good at this (and they have a lot of class to pick from!), as soon as form dips someone else comes in regardless of how many caps the out of form player has. Not picking on form just sends the message to all the players that it doesn’t matter what they do in a club shirt, they have to wait for the incumbent player to have a run of bad games for England or get injured. This is just back to the bad old days of it being impossible to get dropped and actually blocks up and coming new talent from getting a chance. It’s diametrically opposed to your point on youth.

      Vunipola doesn’t seem short of class either, if we were considering picking Wood or Haskell at 8 as an alternative I would agree to give Morgan a chance! Vunipola is one of the brightest prospects we have so if an out of form Morgan keeps him out I will be bitterly disappointed.

      1. I sort of agree with both of you here. There needs to be a mix between the fact that you pick players that are playing well, but whole sale changes from series to series is damaging to the team as well.

        On the NZ point – they do tend to stick by players. Look at Nonu this year and the way McCaw came straight back in, so I don’t think they pick only on form. They tend to have the right balance of form vs class.

        1. Yeah Nonu kind of deflates my argument a bit! I guess, a bit like Jamie Roberts, he is a proven big game player. I wouldn’t be upset to see B Youngs start for the same reason. McCaw did have to prove his fitness for ‘Saders before coming back in though! The list of players getting dropped for being out of form is a much longer one though (Genia being as good an example as I can think of!)

          If Lancaster picks Morgan, and uses supposed superior class as a justification, I’ll be petitioning the RFU for a new coach!

          1. Whilst McCaw has to prove some level of fitness, he absolutely was not on better form than Sam Cane.

            Genia is a good example. I’m not saying the best player must not ever be dropped, but there is an element of realism when it comes to it.

            Also, on Morgan, if he is selected I’m sure the line will be, “credit in the bank”.

            1. The most successful coaches are not simply those that are good man managers but those that identify key big game players and build a team around them. Always picking players who have good club form is a sure sign the coach has no idea who his best players are. There are many players who look great at clubs but simply cannot deal with the pressure of test matches.

              I was pretty happy that Lancaster was treading the right path last year but am a little less sure now, and after seeing the actual team announcement. Anyway this is all purely speculative and success makes all opinion superfluous; just look how Gatland turned the BoD dropping on its head.

    2. Agree about Youngs, but Morgan has had plenty of chances, and aside from a few flashes of pace and power, has done no more than Vunipola recently. He has also playing a lot from the bench fir Glos lately due to Kalamafoni being a more effective player. So we should pick the guy whose had his chances, lost his form, and has rarely started for his club this season?
      As for Goode, I’m sorry but with Brown and Foden fit and in form, I don’t see the need for Goode in the squad. Twelvetrees is the extra playmaker at 12, so no need for Goode to be stepping up to fill in there, and Brown and Foden are better strike runners from deep.

  7. The forwards for England at the moment are looking really good. I personally would have Hartley over youngs, I think he controls the set piece a lot better and seems to have sorted out his lack of discipline over the summer! As far as the number 8 conundrum goes I would prefer to see Morgan start.

    The backs are the thing that I think England really need to worry about leading up to WC 2015. I don’t think there’s a lot to choose between Dickson and Youngs apart from form, and if you’re going by that then Dickson would be your man. As for 10 I can’t, for the life of me, understand why Burns or Ford are not at the very least on the bench. I think Farrell is a good player but if you gave Burns or Ford the opportunity they could outshine him easily! I think it is a mistake to leave Burrell out because of his physicality. And as far as the back three are concerned Foden has to start! I am pleased to see Marland Yarde in the mix and if Ashton doesn’t score at least one try over the next three games he should be dropped in my opinion!

  8. Very interesting discussion we have going here gents (and ladies). One thing I have to say though, is how much strength in depth England have building towards RWC 2015. Such is the competition across the board for places, that in some cases your literally separating the starting player and the bench player based on very
    minuet details. For example Morgan or V

    1. Vunipola* I’d be happy with either. Same with Dickson and Young’s. This shows a real progession in the English game from the dark days of Ashton and Johnson when there really was slim pickings on offer.

      In summary, whatever team we have starting on Saturday they have a real chance of winning, and winning with style! So let’s be happy!

  9. On the wings, I cant help feeling sorry for wade. Heres a guy who at the end of last season was being touted as the next jason robinson, toured with the lions and now he cant even make it on the bench? i understand lancaster views having a full back who can cover wing as a safer option. Which leads me to question the selection. with yarde playing the way he is and what he did on the argentina tour it would be very hard to justify leaving him out. The same with ashton who looks to have rediscovered his form and on his day, on top form surely one of the most effective wingers in the game. This leaves wade in a bit of a rut. A rut a player of his calibre shouldnt be in. I just hope he will be given some game time this autumn.

    1. Comparing Wade to Robinson was total nonsense. Robinson was a complete player with very few weaknesses. Wade has neither the kicking or tackling ability Robinson had. No doubt Wade will score tries others won’t but it’s the other weaknesses in his play that may tell at test level.

      Also there is no way the Argentina tour proved anything about English players except that the Argies without their top players are dubious quality at best. This series of matches now in November will prove a lot about the mettle of some of the new younger faces. The NZ game should tell us a huge amount about some of them.

      1. Who would your ideal back three be at this stage then? I’d stick with Ashton and yarde at the minute until one of them slips up, giving wade an opurtunity. Foden over Brown every day of the week…

        1. I’d pick Foden too, but Brown has performed consistently well for Quins and England. I haven’t seen much of Ashton, but I hope the whispers of his return to form are indeed true. Wade is still a bit of a defensive liability I think, so would also go Ashton/Yarde/Foden.

        2. I’d agree that Ashton must stay in as he has BMT. Yarde will show what he has and I am agnostic on him at this stage. I suspect that Brown was chosen over Foden because he offers a better kicking option than Foden and is a foil to the limited kicking of the two wings. Brown on wing and Foden at FB may have been a better option.

          I still believe though that Alex Goode offers a playmaking capability none of the other fullbacks do despite what happened on Saturday where the team performance made all Sarries players look poor, and vice versa.

          Foden is always going to be one of those players who everyone feels sorry for. He looks great on attack and plays well when the space is opened up for him. However I’ve always been a little suspect that he has the general all round game to be really useful in all circumstances.

          1. I don’t think anyone thinks Foden or Brown are better playmakers than Goode, but I think everyone can see that he is worse at playing full back.

            Goode is too slow to play full back at international level IMO, and slows the game down. I’m pretty sure if you asked Australia who they’d rather play against, they would all say Goode. He Offers the least in attack, Foden offers the most.

            I don’t really see any weaknesses in Fodens game, I find it really strange that SL has never taken to him. I don’t mind Brown starting, but if Goode starts getting in before Foden then I will be less than happy.

            1. Given that Goode is now out and Foden is on the bench we’ll hopefully have enough time in the next month to see what Foden can do. He should get at least 60-80 minutes.

              1. I’m not really seeing why we need to, “see what Foden can do”. The guy has 31 England caps, and is a proven try scorer against some of the best sides in the world. Whilst I’m not saying that means we must play him, he doesn’t have all that much to prove.

  10. I like the intent this team seems to suggest. The set piece may be slightly weakened but of all 3 teams we will face the Aussies are probably the safest we can play with it, the bonus is if we can dominate or get parity then the athleticism and ball carrying gained may make the difference. The back row looks good with the greater ball carrying threat of vunipola giving it what was missing. Interested to see the midfield combination don’t really see barritt coming back in if it goes well. Also think brown running straight and Hard from FB will bring Ashton into the game far better than Goode ever did.

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