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