The Rugby World Cup is only six months away now and on the back of what was mostly a positive Six Nations for England Stuart Lancaster must be somewhat clearer about who he may pick in his World Cup squad. c Here is how I assess the situation, who are the movers and shakers post Six Nations.
Definite: Dan Cole, David Wilson (if fit), Dylan Hartley, Tom Youngs, Joe Marler
Possible: Rob Webber, Mako Vunipola, Alex Corbisiero
Outside bets: Kieran Brookes, Henry Thomas, Matt Mullan
Dan Cole cemented his place with an impressive Six Nations, David Wilson has too much good work saved up to his name to be left out if he is fit in time, which he should be. It may be harsh on Kieran Brookes and Henry Thomas who both performed well when called upon in the Six Nations but their time will surely come post Rugby World Cup and Lancaster must be happy to see such strength in depth in his tight-head stocks. The hooking berth appears to be a straight shootout between Hartley and Youngs however at a tournament like the Rugby World Cup another hooker may need to be included which opens the door for Rob Webber. The Bath man is the clear third choice and a consistent performer for his club, his inclusion seems the sensible thing to do as England would be stuck if one of their two hookers went down the day before a game and Webber was not in the squad. Joe Marler owns the loose-head shirt at the minute, he has really grown into a top class international prop. It isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that both Vunipola and Corbisiero would both be invited into the squad. Lancaster’s main issue may be who to start, at the moment that’s Marler, however an impressive European and domestic end to the season for Corbisiero could give him the edge. Matt Mullan, another top performer week in, week out, is solid back up.
Definite: Courtney Lawes
Possible: Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury, Dave Attwood
Outside bets: George Kruis, Graham Kitchener, Maro Itoje
The second row is a hard one to pick for Lancaster, with a small squad he may only select three out and out second row options and have a back row cover the fourth, someone like a Tom Croft of Nick Easter. Courtney Lawes is a definite, one of the best locks in the world and he came back from injury so impressively to drive England’s Six Nations hopes right to the very end. Who joins him is down to form and fitness. Launchbury would be a definite but he hasn’t played for months and there hasn’t been much news about his return, neck and nerve injuries must be treated with caution. If Launchbury can get himself back for the warm up games and comes through those he must be included. He can gain match fitness against the likes of Fiji and Uruguay in the group stages before the knockouts. Geoff Parling was underwhelming in his comeback game against France and will be looking to stay injury free to compete with Attwood for a space in the squad. George Kruis had an impressive Six Nations but lacks the experience for a big tournament, the same can be said for Kitchener and Itoje however if Parling and Launchbury fail to overcome their injury problems Lancaster may be forced to look a little further afield at his options.
Definite: James Haskell, Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw ©, Tom Wood
Possible: Nick Easter, Tom Croft, Ben Morgan
Outside bets: Steffan Armitage, Matt Kvesic, Thomas Waldrom, Dave Ewers, Matt Garvey, Callum Clark
England’s starting back row for the Six Nations consisting of Haskell, Robshaw and Vunipola have secured their places. Tom Wood has also been too integral to Lancaster’s team and earns himself a spot in the World Cup squad. Back up number eight is between Easter and Morgan, if Morgan can regain fitness in time and comes through the warm up games the shirt is his. Easter has the luxury of World Cup experience and the ability to cover second row which will tempt Lancaster. If both men are injured it opens the door for the Exeter duo of Walrdom and Ewers, some may also call for the inclusion of Steffan Armitage. The Toulon man has yet to feature during Lancaster’s tenure and it would be a big call to bring him in now. One more space is possibly available as a flanker in the squad. Matt Garvey and Callum Clarke could do a useful job as a number six / second row cover however if Lancaster feels he needs more of a fetcher in his ranks then Kvesic and Armitage may be his men, quick ball and turnover ball is vital in unleashing Englands potent backline. Tom Croft could be the man to cover back row and Second row however his lack of game time and current injury are really going against him.
Definite: Ben Youngs, George Ford, Owen Farrell
Possible: Richard Wigglesworth, Danny Care, Danny Cipriani
Outside bets: Lee Dickson, Joe Simpson, Freddie Burns, Stephen Myler, Henry Slade
Ben Youngs nailed down his opportunity to be recognized as England’s first choice scrum-half, however for Lancaster it will be a little harder to sort out the chasing pack. Three scrum-halves will likely be chosen as it’s such a specialist position. Richard Wigglesworth is the best kicker, he was rarely used in the Six Nations and made little impact when he was called upon, however World Cups do tend to be more conservative and Wigglesworths kicking could be invaluable, I think he will be in the squad. Danny Care will also likely feature, if Youngs went down injured then Care is the man to pick up the tempo of Englands play. Lee Dickson has tailed off a little but I am sure he will be tested in the warm-ups. Joe Simpson is an interesting one, he hasn’t featured for England since the last World Cup and will surely only be used if injury occurs. Fly-half is a little clearer for Lancaster, if fit he has to take Ford and Farrell and at the moment Cipriani has possession of the third choice shirt. Injury could see Burns or Myler called in however if Lancaster is still unsure about 12 then he may want Slade in his squad for some cover and X-factor.
Definite: Jonathan Joseph, Luther Burrell
Possible: Billy Twelvetrees, Brad Barritt, Kyle Eastmond, Manu Tuilangi
Outside bets: Sam Burgess
Jonathan Joseph set the Six Nations alight at times, he has the ability to play on the wing as well which Lancaster will favour. Burrell must also be included, he has been a mainstay of recent times and can cover 12 as well as 13 so he is in the squad. If fit I have no doubt Manu Tuilangi will be included, for the same reasons as Burrell, he can play 12 or 13 and wing. That leaves one more space, possibly Henry Slade as a 10 covering centre but possibly an out and out 12, Brad Barritt’s defence could be crucial but he too will need to recover from injury in time. For me Twelvetrees doesn’t warrant a place in the squad but Lancaster seems to like him. If Bath have a big performance against Leinster this weekend and finish the season well then Eastmond may be in for a big shout, but looking at that defence Sam Burgess could push his way in if he can continue to improve and performs well in the warm-ups.
Definite: Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson
Possible: Jonny May, Chris Ashton, David Strettle, Marland Yarde
Outside bets: Christian Wade, Semesa Rokoduguni
Over the tournament we saw Watson and Nowell pencil their names into England’s starting XV as they both impressed, scoring tries and are definites for the World Cup. I’m guessing there will be room for another two wingers with Watson acting as a third choice fullback. On current form and for possessing more of an all-round game you’d have to say that Strettle and Ashton deserve it. Both have scored bucketful’s for Saracens this season and are both good footballers with an accomplished kicking game. Jonny May has X-factor but may still be viewed as a liability, another man in a similar position is Christian Wade. Wade’s advantage over May could be that he will score a lot more tries than the Gloucesterman this season, therefore if you want real X-factor at a risk you chose the Wasp instead. Marland Yarde appeared to be in a strong position going into this season however poor form for club and country has made it difficult to make a case for his inclusion. The forgotten man is Baths flying Fijian-cum-Englishman Semesa Rokoduguni, he started the season on fire, impressive in defence as well as being quick and powerful, he seemed to have everything Lancaster had been looking for. Injury has crippled his World Cup hopes however like Eastmond and Burgess he has the advantage of playing in Europe against Leinster to showcase his talents.
Definite: Mike Brown
Possible: Alex Goode, Chris Pennell
Outside bets: Ben Foden
Fullback is probably the simplest position in the team to choose for Stuart Lancaster and his team of coaches. If fit then Mike Brown starts, he is a key player and leader in this current England team. His back up is uncertain, Alex Goode didn’t take his chance in the Six Nations however if Saracens can go on an impressive European run then he could cement his place in the team. Chris Pennell’s only hopes are for someone to get injured or if he can start a warm-up game and impress. Pennell plays in the championship with Worcester and is rated highly by the current England set-up but he may not have enough top class rugby under his belt in time for the World Cup. Ben Foden was starting to hit his best form before an injury wrecked his season, if Foden can get back for the World Cup warm ups then who knows, but it is unlikely.