Following the announcement of England’s Elite Performance Squad for the forthcoming season, Chris Francis takes a look at the list in more depth.
Building on what was an encouraging, if ultimately fruitless, international season last year, and off the back of a very promising tour of Argentina, Lancaster seems to have hit the nail on the head in all regards with his forward selections for the year ahead.
First, we see promotions for Dave Attwood (Bath), Matt Kvesic (Gloucester) and Billy Vunipola (Saracens). Second-rower Attwood is a workhorse, and joins a very competitive area of the squad, competing with Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury, and Courtney Lawes – he has performed at a high standard for a long while now, and this inclusion is just rewards for that. There were some murmurings in Leicester that Ed Slater and Graham Kitchener might make a move in to this spot, but Attwood has the edge at the moment. Whether he will be able to force himself ahead of the excellent pairing of Parling and Launchbury is unlikely, but he should be able to push Lawes hard for a spot in the match day squad come the Autumn Internationals.
Matt Kvesic is a great inclusion, and the sort of back rower England have been missing while playing the less mobile Chris Robshaw at open-side flanker. Robshaw has many attributes, but one of the main reasons he missed out on inclusion for the Lions’ tour to Australia this summer was his lack of outright pace in comparison to the other options. Kvesic has this in spades, and is game smart, knowing when and how to put his head in the nasty places for maximum effect.
Billy Vunipola is by no means the finished article but he has an enormous base on which to build. He has ridiculous amounts of muscle, is an intimidating ball-carrier even to players at International level (see his try vs Argentina this summer), and can only continue to get better.
There are others whose stock has improved over the summer in the forwards too. David Wilson had an excellent tour to South America, and stepped up as a leader amongst a young, inexperienced squad, and is a mean scrummager. Alex Corbisiero went from late addition to one of the most influential players in the Lions’ series, and was immense in the final Test especially. Mako Vunipola also showed that he is a fearsome and now far more consistent performer. His scrummaging troubles were overblown by Sky’s anaylsis, in my opinion, and his work around the park is almost unmatched by other front row forwards.
The one selection that could court controversy is Dylan Hartley. Foolishly sent off in the final of the Aviva Premiership last year for swearing at the referee, there is an argument to say he is lucky to keep his place. He is an excellent player though, and it has to be hoped that such a chastening experience (he missed his second Lions tour let’s not forget for ill-discipline) may have taught him a lesson he should have learnt much earlier. Getting ahead of Tom Young, though is going to be very difficult, as he continues to show what a masterstroke it was to convert him from an inside-centre.
The backs are not as strong, although there are some interesting and attacking selections here, which should bode well for those who would like to see more invention from England. Last season’s first team selection remains in place, and while they were not hugely fluent going forward, they were consistent, and strong in defence. It was also encouraging to see Owen Farrell play closer to the gain line in the red of the Lions than he has done for England to date.
The one new inclusion to the EPS that stands out amongst the backs is Kyle Eastmond of Bath. Unfairly compared to Jason Robinson by some, Eastmond is still a player with huge potential at international level. A natural ball player, he could be a revelation at inside-centre – he plays with his head up, the ball in both hands, and has feet as quick as anyone in the game to create space where others see none. The idea of Eastmond inside Manu Tuilagi is hugely exciting.
He will have to work hard though to get that opportunity. Brad Barritt is a favourite of the England coaching staff, and Billy Twelvetrees performed very well all last season and on the tour to Nike-sponsored Argentina.
The return to form of Ben Foden at the back end of last year will push Alex Goode, and the inclusion of the speedsters Christian Wade (Wasps) and Marlande Yarde (London Irish) offer more than Mike Brown and Chris Ashton (who may be viewed as fortunate to remain in the squad).
Amongst the England Saxons Squad there is a good blend of youth and experience. Jack Nowell (Exeter) is a player of massive potential in particular – hugely influential from full-back during the Junior World Championships, he will be a full international at some point, and the experience of training and playing with Mathew Tait (Leicester – excellent to see him back in the fold) will accelerate that progression. Luther Burrell is rewarded for a strong finish to last season and an immense performance in the Premiership final.
In the forwards, it would have been good to see Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter) included in this squad. He has possibly the worst haircut in professional sport, but this only serves to highlight his performances. Cowan-Dickie has the potential, and presence, to play in the England front row for years, and his time will come.
Overall, there can be few complaints from Lancaster’s selection, and here’s to an exciting international season ahead for England.
By Chris Francis
Picture: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images