Reflections on England’s elite squad

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.

Kyle EastmondThe 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

15 thoughts on “Reflections on England’s elite squad

  1. Hutch, as you stated – not too much to argue with.

    Points of interest include who SL will play in the centres in the AI’s. Will he experiment looking for his best blend or will he go for tried and tested. Personally I hope for the former as we don’t really know what we’ve got at international level yet.

    To certain extent this also applies to FH and wings so a fairly unsettled backline moving forward. The pack looks much more settled.

    Also does England suffer from an overload of playing resources meaning that players come and go from the international scene without being developed in the long run. Discuss!

    1. its definitely a fair point about players coming and going without proper development.

      a string of bad games and you could easily be out in the cold.

      i do wonder whether a certain level of that has something to do relationships though. after all, ashton has been pretty poor recently for england, and yet they continue to pick him. whereas someone like Varndell cant seem to buy his way in.
      The Quade Cooper-Robbie Deans relationship was obviously very public, but i wonder if there are a few englishmen who have done things to upset people.

      the really positive thing about this management team is that they seem to have selected a core group of players. there is a little bit of tinkering going on here and there, but overall its pretty stable.

      on a separate note, i didnt think about Cowan-Dickie until he was mentioned here. its a good shout, i would happily have him in the Saxons over someone like Paice. having said that, i think Cowan-Dickie needs to nail down the exeter spot before england look at him. Nowell finished last season as a first team starter.

  2. I think most of pack (bar 6 and 7 which we could discuss all day), basically picks itself. For me it is the back line that gets interesting. Outside of Ben Youngs and Manu, every position could be debated.

    At full back, I’d have Foden all day personally. He has the attacking threat of Brown and the added ball playing intelligence that Brown doesn’t quite have IMO. He also knows where the try line is; which can’t really be said for Brown or Goode.

    Fly half and inside centre for me is where it gets interesting as I see the selection of one affecting the other. If we are bold and go for Burns, I’d play Twelvetrees. They have a really good ball players and would get us over the gain line. Defensively I don’t see problems because of their relationship at Gloucester, who certainly aren’t a terrible defensive unit. If we go Farrell here, I can see them picking Barritt. I really hope that doesn’t happen because it’ll be the same old boring back line – but it could, and some would.

    The wings for me pick themselves again – Wade and Ashton. There are a lot of calls for Ashton to be dropped, but he ended the season well in Saracens and is class when on form. I’d like to potentially see Jack Nowell have a go on the wing at some point, I know he is a full back but I’ve seen him play wing for Exeter so I’m sure he would.

    1. I would switch it. If would have a more attack minded player in Burns playing, we can have Barritt playing to cover defensively. Barritt can be used as a crash runner or skipped. Plus, England can use their wings in the midfield more. However, if Farrell is playing, Twelvetrees should be 12 because he adds creativity. It’s about balance, so players weaknesses are covered by others’ strengths.

      1. Personally I would say if Farrell is playing I would have Eastmond at 12. Farrell has shown that he can play on the gain line, and with Eastmonds’ ability to outmaneuver the defence he could open up big holes for him and the guys outside him. But I think Eastmond is probably the best bench option England have had for a long time. He can cover the whole back line except SH, although he’d probably give it a go. He has enough pace to play on the wing, the awareness to play FB, and has already shown he can play 10, 12 and 13.
        Farrell and Burns are currently our two best options at 10, and having one on the bench with Eastmond covering the rest of the back line would keep me happy. So a starting combo of Burns, 12T and Tuilagi would be great going forward. Burns and 12T play together, and 12T and Tuilagi played a lot together at Tigers, so makes perfect sense.

        1. My thoughts on who to play together hinged mainly around style of play. So SY, I would say that Burns and Barritt would not work – Burns would go at the gain line and Barritt wouldn’t know what was going on (slight exaggeration I know but you get my point). Farrell and Barritt are normally on the same wave length, as are Burns/12T so I would match the combos up.

          And Dazza I agree with you on Burns/12T/Tuilagi – looks like a very good back line to me.
          I also agree on Eastmond, but I think he will end up play Brown or Foden in the 23 shirt depending on who he doesn’t select. I would personally prefer a Farrell/Eastmond bench but I can’t see it.

          1. Definitely agree with above comments saying Burns/12Ts/Manu and Farrell and Eastmond on the bench.

            Burns is more of an attacking 10 than Farrell, and he has the “steady” (but not one dimensional) 12Ts outside him.

            Farrell would have Eastmond (most attacking 12 available to England) who would play flatter. Also the two could easily interchange. They may also be able to interchange defensively as well. If Eastmond struggles defensively (doubt he will, coming from a League background, but he is small) then Farrell can shift to 12 in defence.

            For me I think I would start considering barritt as more of a 13. If something happens to Manu, then Brad is (sort of) a like-for-like. Although I would be tempted to play 12Ts at 12 and Eastmond at 13.

            Having Eastmond on the bench may not happen, as brown and foden are both still around, and only one will get the 15 shirt. But eastmond’s versatility means he should probably get the spot over brown (foden would be my 15).

            I would also go for wade and yarde on the wings. Possibly shifting foden out if one gets injured, bringing brown in at 15. Really struggling to pick Ashton. I know he has the potential (he used to be excellent) but he really is not there. Until he regains top form, I can’t justify picking him.

            Tight 5 pick themselves really, but I think that I may look at Attwood for the bench spot. Lawes is the most suited to the “impact” role, but he has not impressed recently. Attwood is available to bring added bulk if the tight 5 are struggling (like the Wales game).

            Backrow is a completely different problem, and one I won’t go into now. So many options and combinations available, and all are great choices. I think the only guaranteed starter is Morgan. His club combination with Kvesic could make the 7 choice easier. Still have great options who won’t even make the bench. If Robshaw shifts to 6 for quins, it will make things very interesting. Plus surely that means Wallace (the kid who has shifted the current England 7 and captain to 6) would have to be taken quite seriously too.

  3. A very good selection from Lancaster. The only thing I would’ve changed would be to drop Goode and bring in either another outside back or another flanker, as having 3 15s seems a bit silly. Having watched Bath alot over the years, I think the inclusion of Eastmond is masterstroke. You mention earlier that is unfair to compare Eastmond to Robinson and that is very true- because besides their footwork and physical make-up, they are quite different. Eastmond is a superb playmaker and has a strong kicking game, whilst also having fleet footedness and a low centre of gravity plus his defence is strong too, or else Bath wouldn’t play him there. I personally hope Barritt won’t start as we need a ball playing 12 badly. Farrell’s best game for England came with a ball playing 12 outside him. Twelvetrees had a good game in the 1st test vs Arg, but was pretty poor for the Lions which is perhaps an unfair criticism. I would pick whoever is in better form, Eastmond or Twelvetrees come November.

    Selection also shows how far Manu Tuilagi is ahead of his other rivals for the 13 shirt, as he is the only 13. In the EPS now, Barritt and Eastmond can cover, but they wouldn’t drop Manu for them. Joseph had a poor season and Tomkins still has his flaws, whilst Daly would be our up and coming prospect but needs to play 13 more not 15.

    My team for first game would be:

    Corbisiero, Youngs, Cole, Launchbury, Parling, Croft, Wood (c), Morgan, Youngs, Farrell, Yarde, Eastmond, Tuilagi, Ashton, Brown

    Hartley, Vunipola, Wilson, Lawes, Robshaw, Care, Burns, Wade

  4. Dave – My memory fails me, which game do you mean with the ‘Farrell and ball playing 12 moment’?

    I would have Eastmond on the bench with 12T starting. Why?. I want to see Eastmond on against tired defences with his razzle dazzle, 12T impresses me and I’d like to see what he can do first.

    If Foden can find consistent form, he’s our best fullback and I will never put Chris Ashton in an England team until he a) finds form and b) learns to tackle someone below the chest.

    1. I would assume Dave means the Scotland game where Twelvetrees played alongside Farrell and it went very well.

      Foden finished the season in fantastic form for Saints, he is over his injury now and should certainly be our full back. To point “a” of your Ashton comments, he was very good for Saracens at the end of the season, and “b”, no-one will care about his tackling if he is scoring tries in an England shirt (see 2012-2012 for evidence).

  5. 1. Corbs
    2. Youngs
    3. Cole
    4. Launchbury
    5. Parling
    6. Croft
    7. Robshaw (C)
    8. Morgan
    9. Care
    10. Farrell
    11. Yarde
    12. Twelvetrees
    13. Tuilagi
    14. Wade
    15. Foden

    Subs: M Vunipola, Webber, Attwood, B Vunipola, T Youngs, Flood or Burns!? (to hard to call) Eastmond, Brown

    1. Liam, I made the same mistake as you on another post. Webber is not in the EPS, he’s in the Saxons. Hartley has to be the bench option.

  6. As others have said, aside from physical stature, Robinson and Eastmond are pretty different.

    Eastmond was the playmaker for England and St Helen’s, effectively playing the role of Fly Half.

    I know Bath have experimented with him there, but I think he is worth a shot at inside center.

  7. My team for the first game of the Autumn Internationals as follows:
    5.Parling (c)

    Front three on their day can give anyone a game, slight worries over the pack being a bit light weight though. I would single out the locks there in particular, though they bring other qualities; speed round park, breakdown work etc.. Back row has a nice balance to it, plus Wood has experience of playing at 7 for Northampton. Would like to see an out and out 7 on the pitch but I don’t think Kvesic is better than either Wood or Robshaw. So Wood for now.

    A hell of a lot of talent in the back, iv pipped for Burns over Farrell, purely because he is a more exciting player and he has that experience playing alongside 12t’s. Banking on Ashton to find form, too soon for Yarde. Don’t want to see Goode anywhere near even the bench. Foden all the way.

  8. Mine:

    1. Corbisero
    2. Youngs
    3. Cole
    4. Launchbury
    5. Parling
    6. Robshaw (c)
    7. Kvesic
    8. Morgan
    9. Youngs
    10. Flood
    11. Yarde
    12. 36
    13. Tuilagi
    14. Ashton
    15. Foden

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