Five things we’ve learned from England’s EPS announcement

The pieces of the 2015 puzzle are slowly starting to fall into place for Stuart Lancaster. From a position of mild embarrassment, after his advances were initially turned down by Andy Farrell and then by Wayne Smith, Lancaster has finally reunited his Six Nations triumvirate, with the former Saracens head coach returning to the England setup as defence and backs coach.

Mike Catt, England’s temporary backs coach for the recent tour to South Africa, could yet also join as attack coach. A decision on that is expected by the end of the month, but it looks increasingly certain that even if Catt fails to land the role, Lancaster’s coaching team will be expanded to embrace a dedicated attack coach in a bid to solve England’s offensive malaise.

Perhaps most crucially, Lancaster himself has learned a great deal from the heartening 2-0 series defeat in the southern hemisphere. The invaluable experience of leading a tour party to perhaps the most hostile rugby environment in the world has doled out some crucial lessons for Lancaster.

If they weren’t already, the nuances of test match starting selection have not so much been impressed on him as walloped on him. Lancaster’s understanding of how to use his bench for maximum impact has also been placed under the spotlight.

In his short tenure so far, Lancaster has prided himself on his ability to listen, learn, adapt and improve. He has also proved he is not afraid of taking brave decisions when they are required. So, reading between the lines of the recent EPS Squad announcement, what has Lancaster learned from England’s summer tour?

1. Ben Foden is now considered a winger
With only two out-and-out wingers in the squad in Chris Ashton and Charlie Sharples, and following an adequate audition in South Africa, it seems increasingly as though Stuart Lancaster regards Ben Foden as England’s incumbent number 11. Fielding a different full-back in each of the three tests this summer, Lancaster has proved that he has comfortable strength in depth at 15, and with Foden moving to the wing, Brown and Goode will be fighting it out for a starting berth in the autumn internationals.

2. Owen Farrell is England’s fly half in waiting
Whether or not you’re a fan of Farrell’s solid-if-predictable displays at 10, the scene is set for the young Saracen to wrestle with Toby Flood for the stand-off starting spot once more when the southern hemisphere sides come calling in November. Charlie Hodgson’s retirement had left the door ajar for George Ford’s promotion to the EPS, but Lancaster has shut that opening, for now. Flood is the more exciting player, Farrell the more solid player. Selection at 10 this autumn will tell us a lot about the route that Lancaster and company are plotting towards 2015.

3. Tuilagi and Joseph won’t be partners for long
When selected as a centre partnership, with Tuilagi inside Joseph, pundits and fans alike were quick to praise this bold selection. Yet with Joseph disappearing as an attacking force for large portions of the second and third tests, and Tuilagi’s wrecking-ball power easier to shut down at inside centre, the reality never quite matched up to the potential. They still could form an effective partnership in the future, but with Allen, Turner-Hall and Barritt all selected, the fight for the number 12 shirt will see Tuilagi or Joseph shifted to the wing, or even the bench.

4. Tom Wood is set to return to the back row
Lancaster made no secret of quite how much he thought (and evidently still thinks) of Northampton flanker Tom Wood. The breakthrough player from England’s 2011 Six Nations campaign was overlooked for the World Cup and then sat out most of last season on the side-lines due to injury. But after a frustratingly long lay-off, the would-be Red Rose captain is set to return to the England fold. While Chris Robshaw has made the openside position his own with a series of battle-hardened all-action displays, the number 6 position could well be up for grabs despite Exeter’s Tom Johnson and Leicester’s Tom Croft both impressing in recent times. Both Johnson and Croft offer more speed over the ground, but Wood has the guile, ‘groundhog’ nous, and the bullfighter mentality that would have helped stop the South African steamroller this summer.

5. Adaptability is a valuable commodity
Take a look at the players selected in the England squad and you’ll notice one common feature that defines Lancaster’s charges. Other than a few specialist positions, every player is capable of covering at least two, if not three, other positions. While some won’t concur with the selection of Matt Stevens, Phil Dowson, perhaps even Owen Farrell and Alex Goode, there’s no denying their value in the hostile environment of test match rugby. Just look at the number of changes England were forced into in South Africa as evidence of that. Now more than ever, adaptability is a highly valuable commodity.

By Daniel Street, Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

28 thoughts on “Five things we’ve learned from England’s EPS announcement

        1. Hey Coxy, let me know what you don’t like about the article – would be interested to hear your thoughts, and get your feedback.

  1. Point 6. We’re still short of experience and quality at some key positions. Wing you have mentioned, and centre, but the front row is an injury away from a big drop off and we are still looking for that second row combination.

    Point 7. Are we ever going to have a true openside? Having said that I do like what Robshaw did in SA.

    1. Yes, Robshaw is becoming the true openside – he was huge at the breakdown and is looking more and more like a ‘fetcher’.

      The second row looked lightweight in SA, but Courtney Lawes should be straight in alongside Palmer or Botha probably, and that immediately gives it more of an edge.

      As for the front row, hooker is probably the main concern, with no competition for Hartley at the moment. Would be good to see Joe Gray or Tom Youngs coming through as strong contenders…

      1. Disagree on the second row there – Lawes doesn’t call the lineout and neither does Botha, and Palmer never does it well. You take out Parling and you’ve got no one who can operate the lineout effectively. It’s the Borthwick problem all over again – England need a dynamic lock who can call the lineouts!

        1. Tom Croft operates lineout fairly effectively for Leicester and England, if he’s not injured and he’s in form over Wood/Johnson/every other 6 who looks fantastic in and England shirt

    2. I personally thought there was good strength and depth in the second row. Personally – as a second row – I look closely at it. I think Parling, Botha and Palmer all offer something about the park, as well as grunt in the scrum. With the return of Lawes and the upcoming of Kitchener and a couple of others, it looks like a good position for England at the moment

      True openside true schmopenside. I think the “true” openside position is one made up a little bit by pundits for the sake of having something to talk about. For me, if you play well at 7, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing the typical job of a 7. In 3 years time the tactics will probably have changed and the definition of a true openside will probably have changed. If you can put someone in a 7 shirt and he can do a job he’s a 7. That’s not to say 6 can always play 7, but much of it is transferable.

      The other option at 7, often not thought of, is Waldrom who played at 7 at the Crusaders as McCaw’s understudy. He doesn’t play there often for Leicester, but he’s an option – in keeping with the article’s Adaptibility section

      1. I agree that we have second rows who can play international rugby, but we haven’t got that right combination at present. I think that Lawes and Palmer is about the best at the mo, but Lawes needs time in the international arena and therefore needs to stay injury free. We’ve seen a large number of outstanding rugby players who just can’t do that – Tom Rees and James Simpson Daniel to name but two. Jury is therefore still out. Maybe I’m a perfectionist and would only be happy with Botha and Matfield in their prime?!

        1. Atwood is a bit of a forgotten man. His power and athleticism are badly needed against teams like SA. Parling does not dominate the lineout well enough like Victor Matfield did, for him to be included, because he brings nothing else to England other then a lineout presence.

    3. Two really valid points Staggy. Particularly the front row issue, where we’d be in trouble if Dan Cole was out for any length of time.

      The openside issue concerned me throughout the last world cup, but seeing Robshaw in action recently, I’m convinced that two ‘6.5s’ (Robshaw and Wood) might actually give us better balance anyway.

  2. Its a shame Johnny May hasn’t been included in the mix. He has the versatility and in South Africa he showed he had the potential talent. Would also like to see how Twelvetrees gets on because inside centre is still a huge problem for England and in my mind, he is the only player who has the playmaker and kicking skills of a fly half, but the bulk to be solid enough in defense. However, I don’t think he has quite proved himself yet, but am hoping he makes big strides in the season to come.

  3. Points 1 and 2 are quite depressing. We really should be blooding some of our exciting wingers, rather than playing people out of position. I seem to be alone in feeling that Ashton does not currently warrant a place. Cant quite understand why we have no third option at flyhalf given Farrell’s difficulties in SA. Let’s hope Burns has a stormer or changes clubs – Gloucester players do seem to be largely overlooked in recent years – Narraway, Wood, Burns, May, JSD to name a few. Not sure how Sharples has managed to sneak though.

    1. JSD – if he was Welsh he’d have had fifty caps by now. I could never understand why England overlooked him. Whenever the Blues played Gloucs he was always a pain/delight (depending on your support), always played an exciting game. Great player.

      1. He would have had the caps if he hadn’t got injured at the wrong time on a number of occassions. Sadly he is always only a whisker away from another injury and that has curtailed him. Would have done, whoever he’d played for sadly – great talent.

        1. Was it just that? I seem to recall some of England’s less adventurous coaches not liking his unstructured approach to the game?

          1. The injury jinx was was true under Johnson, not for the other coaches. Andy Robinson was the real architect behind killing his career, giving him a one off chance at centre before binning him for the tried, trusted and super exciting Tindall/ Noon axis. He also ignored Olly Smith at the same time when he was playing out of skin for Leicester. The damage that Robinson did to england still makes me angry his legacy of negativity and fear still ran through the Ashton and Johnsopn eras.

  4. I disagree about Ashton, thought he was really good in SA. Made good yards with ball in hand, solid in defense and can chase a high ball. He is the whole package for an international winger. He has scored less tries in recent times simply because teams know how dangerous he is and mark him well. He will come good in terms of tries again I am sure of it. Although I do agree about having Foden as a winger is no ideal, he is a full back!

    And on the twelvetrees debate, I am not convinced. He left Leicester by his choice, that suggests to me to be a lack of ambition. Anyone wanting to become an England regular would have a much better chance to do say playing regularly at Leicester rather than Gloucester?

    1. I think 12treees made the right choice – he just wasn’t rated by Cockerhill. I mean playing second fiddle to Flood, Ford or Allen is one thing, but there were times last season (pre transfer request) that he was behind Staunton in the pecking order. Jeremy Staunton gives journeyman rugby players a bad name with his mediocrity.

      1. Yes I have to say that he appears to have come to Glos for regular rugby so that he can further his career, rather than sitting on the bench and not doing so. Good backline at Glos for him to be a part of, just hope we can win the ball to use them!

  5. I think the one thing everyone seems to forget is that Lancaster is somewhat hamstrung when he announces his EPS, as there is a maximum percentage (25% I believe) of changes he can make.

    I’m therefore not surprised that there are some areas that are not changed for a specific reason.

    I also think that there is precedent for people stepping straight up into the EPS and going almost straight into the side (cast your minds back to January, Parling was left out in favour of Deacon and became 1st choice second row relatively quickly after Lawes injury).

    So in that respect, I don’t think you can say that Foden’s future is deemed to be at 11. It may well be that he is used there, and why not, but it may be a more valid point to group him in your adaptability group.

    Wade, Strettle and May are all in the second tier waiting to be moved up if/when injuries take their toll. Likewise, in respect of Point 2, Ford is sitting there waiting. Is he ready for Test rugby? Possibly not quite yet, for which reason his appearance at Saxons level is a valid progressive step. Ruling him out for the foreseeable future is a little sensational in my opinion.

    1. Hi Mark – all valid points.

      I’d prefer to see Foden at 15 and Ford given a run at 10 with Farrell inside him, personally. The point of this article was to make some assumptions based on the recent tour and the EPS, but I completely agree that the Saxons selections could play a crucial role if they are required to step up.

    2. The EPS restriction only applies to the January reshuflle. SL not restricted on who he picks each summer.

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