Whilst a heroic loss to the French in Paris and a convincing if somewhat underwhelming victory over a limp Scotland side(who would of though we would ever describe the Scots as limp) do not amount to much of the current journalistic hype, England do appear to be heading in the right direction.
It finally seems that England are beginning to develop competition in every position on the pitch with a raft of young talent being given their opportunity to stake a claim for a starting spot. This has led to some of the more established senior players upping their game in order to just retain their starting shirt. I believe that if Stuart Lancaster can find or improve 3 more players then England can truly be a force to be reckoned with come the World Cup in 2015.
On current form I believe England currently have one of the best packs in World rugby, and although individually they may not be considered the best in their position, as a unit they have become a truly formidable force. Graham Rowntree has moulded a pack that are solid in the set-piece and a real physical presence in the loose that teams will be fearing once again.
Whilst the backs are still yet to truly lay down a marker that suggests they are a force to be reckon with, it is now possible to see signs that the potential is there. The current half-back partnership seems to have finally clicked whilst there are players sticking their hands up in the centres and on the wings at last. Meanwhile at full-back there are a number of players all capable of taking the 15 shirt.
Though there may be plenty of potential in the side, I feel that Stuart Lancaster needs to find another top class tighthead prop, centre and winger who can nail down a place in the squad before England can truly be considered as contenders at the next World Cup.
Here’s how I see the side at the moment;
Loosehead Prop is currently an area of great strength for England with Alex Corbisiero currently one of the best in the World in his position. The one issue is whether or not he is capable of remaining fit for more than two games at a time. Fortunately in Joe Marler England have a more than able deputy whilst Mako Vunipola is an excellent impact replacement whose scrummaging seems to have improved dramatically.
Hooker is another position where England seem to have a stand-out performer in Dylan Hartley who has the number 2 shirt nailed down. Tom Youngs provides excellent back-up but his throwing at the line-out is an area of concern and could see him surpassed by Rob Webber or one of England’s up-and-coming hookers such as Jamie George.
Tighthead Prop I believe is the one area of relative weakness for England currently as proven by Dan Cole having to play the full 80 minutes in Paris last week. Although Cole is a strong choice at tighthead, I can’t help but feel that England need a player to emerge who can really challenge him for the starting shirt ahead of the World Cup. Henry Thomas looks a decent prospect but his scrummaging is a possible weakness whilst David Wilson is a decent back-up, however to really compete England need to find another top tighthead and soon.
Second Row has to be one of the biggest areas of strength in the current England set-up. The current combination of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launcbury looks to have the perfect balance and could be one for the next ten years as they combine athleticism, power and ability to run the line-out. Behind them are the likes of Dave Attwood, Geoff Parling and Graham Kitchener who all look more than capable of stepping into the side without seriously weakening the team.
Blindside Flanker is a position that could be one of serious strength for England if Tom Croft can get himself fit next season. Meanwhile Tom Wood has nailed down the position at blindside and looks like he will be hard to budge. With Billy Vunipola capable of playing at 6 alongside a raft of other players capable of stepping in, England look well stocked in the back row.
Openside Flanker has been a key area of debate amongst England fans for several years now with a number of people still not convinced by Chris Robshaw in the number 7 shirt. For me though Robshaw has more than proved that he is deserving of the starting shirt as he continues to impress with his work rate and leadership skills, as well as combining nicely with Wood and Vunipola as a combination. The likes of Matt Kvesic, Will Fraser and Luke Wallace all look like excellent prospects as well who will keep Robshaw honest.
Number 8 appears to be pretty much England’s strongest position with new contenders for the starting shirt emerging on a regular basis. Current incumbent Billy Vunipola looks set to be given the nod ahead of the World Cup after a number of World class performances since coming into the England fold. Vunipola will be challenged by the likes of Ben Morgan, Dave Ewers and Sam Dickinson in the run up to the show piece event in 2015.
Scrum-half finally seems to have been nailed down by Danny Care after his truly fantastic performances so far in the 6 Nations. He has finally managed to nail down his kicking game which more than compliments his pace and quick thinking making him one of the best 9’s in the World on current form. Care is more than ably backed up by Lee Dickson and Ben Youngs (if he can regain his form).
Fly-half is another position where the incumbent (Owen Farrell) seems to have finally quietened the critics. His displays so far have indicated a player who is developing nicely into the fly-half role who has added much more than just a solid defence and boot to his game. In George Ford and Freddie Burns England also have two young fly-halves who could turn a tight game when coming off the bench.
Centre has been a key area of debate for England for the last 10 years with no combination seemingly able to quite stick for longer than a few games. All the signs would point to Manu Tuilagi starting in one of the shirts, however there is still much debate over who might partner him and where. Currently the signs point to Billy Twelvetrees starting inside him, although rumours of Sam Burgess switching codes could change this, whilst the likes of Luther Burrell will also be keen to make a claim. Whatever the case, Lancaster either needs to find or develop a truly World class centre to partner Tuilagi during the World Cup.
Wing is the most volatile position in the current England set-up with new players seemingly being tried out in every international series. Whilst Chris Ashton may have fallen out of favour, Jonny May and Jack Nowell have emerged as the young contenders whilst Christian Wade and Marland Yarde will be chomping at the bit to be given their chance after returning from injury. Whatever happens over the next 18 months, England must ensure at least one of these players develops into a truly World class finisher or risk continuing to struggle to turn territory and possession into points.
Full-back is another position that England finally seem to have sewn up with Mike Brown emerging as one of the premier 15’s in the Northern hemisphere. He is solid at the back, whilst his broken field running make him a key attacking asset in Stuart Lancaster’s armoury. Brown will be backed up by either Ben Foden or Alex Goode who both bring a variety of different assets to England’s bench.
The key for me is not necessarily having the best player in every position, but players who function well together as a unit as has been more than ably demonstrated by England’s pack recently. For England to achieve this I believe they require 3 more players to step up and fit seamlessly into the current system asap so they have at least a full year to gel ahead of the World Cup. To me it seems that England have finally developed strength in depth in all positions across the field, the key now is to find 3 players capable of stepping up at tighthead, centre and wing who will nail down the starting shirt and ensure England are competitive at the World Cup.