With the Six Nations having drawn to a close this weekend, and despite a reasonably slow start, it has actually turned out to be a close, exciting tournament. Although England will be disappointed to have not got their hands on the trophy, I actually don’t think it matters. Of course, you play to win, but England have done what they wanted to do. We beat Wales, we beat Ireland, and we actually seem to have the makings of a truly world class team. Especially if you look at the injury list: Tuilagi, Parling, Yarde, Wade, Corbisiero, Cole, Croft, Foden, the list of established internationals and Lions goes on and on and on. Given that, what we have achieved is actually incredible. Obviously not all of those would be in the team, and I’m not saying those players would have stopped Gael Fickou running in a last minute try, but given the amount of inexperience in the side, winning the championship is irrelevant. Thoughts should be to the World Cup. The tour to New Zealand in the summer will provide Lancaster with a chance to give experience against the mighty All Blacks, but based on the last few months, who should be in that squad for 2015?
The front row had been a real area of strength for England, but after being taken to pieces by Ireland in the scrum, do we need new players fast? Alex Corbisiero is a shoe-in at loosehead. He’s proved himself at the very highest level and whilst Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola are not bad players, they are not Alex Corbisiero. His scrummaging and work rate makes him, in my opinion, one of the finest looseheads in world rugby recently.
Hooker is also a reasonably strong area for England. Being given the captaincy once again at Northampton has done Dylan Hartely wonders and he has proved himself recently to be a crucial player for England. His lineout percentage rate is unbelievable, combined with his carrying and work in the rucks. Tom Youngs is good back up and is solid round the park, but his lineout throwing needs a huge amount of work. In the Autumn, against New Zealand, he single handedly lost that game due to his lineout. Rob Webber is a strong carrier and fine leader for Bath, and has been unlucky not to get more of a chance in the white shirt. He will provide strong cover should one of Hartley or Youngs fall to injury.
Tighthead is a hard one. Dan Cole has been a fine servant for England, and David Wilson provides strong backup, but I think to convincingly win a World Cup, a Dan Cole is not good enough. He is, without doubt, a hard working player and a very good one, but being destroyed by Cian Healy showed his weaknesses. Unfortunately I don’t think a tighthead better than Cole will be found by the World Cup.
Where to start with England’s second row?! The combo of Launchbury and Lawes has become cemented in the side, and could well be the pairing for many years to come. Lawes is the more visible in games, with his huge hits and general athleticism, but where he is really an asset to the side is in the lineout. Now the leader of the lineout, he is one of the finest jumpers in world rugby. This is coupled beautifully with the dirty work of Joe Launchbury who consistently hits the most rucks in the team, and saved England against Ireland with an unbelievable tap tackle out wide on Dave Kearney. The backup of Geoff Parling and Dave Attwood just shows how good England are in this area, neither of those two are bad players and can really make a difference late on in games.
The back row is another area of real strength for England. At number 6, Tom Wood has been immense and even the mighty Tom Croft returning from injury does not look like it will displace Wood from the team. You hardly ever see him in games, but take him away and you’d notice it massively! Both are quality players, and Tom Croft can do real damage late on in the game in the open areas. Openside is actually an area I think could use a bit of tinkering. I am not going to come out and say Chris Robshaw should be dropped. I’m a big fan of his work rate and his captaincy is very good. I would actually however like to see one of him or Tom Wood being subbed off around 55/60 mins and being replaced by someone like Matt Kvesic or Croft who are incredibly mobile and can bring something else to the side that neither Robshaw or Wood can.
Number 8 has also been proven to be incredible for England. The 130kg frame of Billy Vunipola is now relied upon in the side and he looks set to become a truly world class player. His carrying strength is unparalled and he seems to have added an almost Kieran Read-esque offloading side to his game. Ben Morgan has also stepped up when required and carries very strongly a bit wider in the pitch than Vunipola. So rest assured that when Big Billy gets tired, England will get no weaker!
If you’d asked me this a year ago, I would’ve replied with Burns and Youngs in a heartbeat. Both however, have hit rough patches of form, and have made way for the partnership of Care and Farrell to control games and dictate how England want to play. Care, love him or hate him, has really come of age recently, and while his kicking game leaves something to be desired, his tempo and running game means he has to start. He is lethal around the fringes and has to constantly be monitored. Lee Dickson seems to be in the number 2 spot, with a bit more security to his game than Care, but Ben Youngs is not far behind at all, and the British and Irish Lions scrumhalf has the ability to change a game if he improves his form. We need the Ben Youngs of old who was fearless enough to run the ball out from under his own posts and put Ashton, via Lawes, under the sticks at the other end.
Owen Farrell has also come of age, and seems calm enough and mature enough to marshal the England backs. Despite the odd off the ball incident, his kicking, both out of hand and at goal, is superb and he seems to be developing a more free flowing game, as was shown in the Autumn when he took advantage of a gap against Australia to score. Former IRB Young Player of the Year George Ford is also a good young player, but is too inexperienced at the moment. I think the tour to New Zealand has to be his time to shine. Coming off the bench, I’d want to see Freddie Burns spreading the ball wide, but he must fix his club form or else Ford will keep the number 2 spot.
The hardest area to choose. Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell have been solid in the centre, but I think they lack an X factor. Twelvetrees has a superb skill set, but he hasn’t shown his Gloucester form for England. Burrell however has been unbelievable. 3 tries in 4 games. If we thought he was good for Saints, what do we think of him now?! He runs clever lines at pace and brings more distribution than Manu Tuilagi did. He will be impossible to drop. I think that pairing would be fine for the World Cup and it definitely would not lose games for us! However I really, really want to see Kyle Eastmond be given a chance. He has lethal feet, pace and has the skill on top of it all. Of course he can’t compete physically with the 6”3, 6”4 pair of Twelvetrees and Burrell, but he provides a real spark. I think the number 12 spot, despite Billy Twelvetrees doing a good job, is not by any means nailed down and Eastmond could be the man to secure it. It will also be intriguing to see how ‘Slammin’ Sam Burgess gets on in his rugby union adventure. Burgess is a physical freak. 6”5 and 118kg, plus the pace and offloading. Could he be the English Sonnny Bill? I think so. The World Cup may be too soon, but I don’t think it will be. He is a force of nature for the South Sydney Rabbitohs and I can’t wait to see him doing it in a white shirt. Brad Barritt, Joel Tomkins, Jonathan Joseph and Henry Trinder must also get mentions, as they all have the potential, given a run of good club form, to make the squad.
I really can’t decide on this area. The back three of England has the potential to be incredible. The majority of the options are young, livewire players who put emphasis on running the ball and causing their opposite men troubles. Gone are the Matt Banahans who just make up the numbers, we have real ability to score tries. Jonny May and Jack Nowell have played well, but have not scored tries. May is incredibly fast, and could turn into a lethal international try scorer, but he comes inside too much and needs to back himself more. Nowell works very hard, coming off his wing and looking for work tirelessly, but we have not seen him do for England what he does for the Chiefs. He is a player with great speed and great feet, as we saw when he put Mike Brown in against Scotland, but he needs more confidence and more intent. Marland Yarde coming back from injury will also be a huge shake up as the soon to be Harlequins winger is lethal. Fast, strong, agile, Yarde is the whole package and really causes problems. Christian Wade, although his defence needs serious work, and Anthony Watson can also provide raw pace to score tries and could easily break into the squad. For all those who were screaming at their screens when reading the centres part, no I have not forgotten about the 6”1 Manu Tuilagi. I really want to see him on the wing, causing people problems in the wider channels as I think the centres do not need him at the moment.
Does fullback even need mentioning? Mike Brown is majestic. Under the high ball, with the ball in hand, in defence, the fullback is the diamond in England’s team. He always beats the first man, and usually the second (!), and consistently makes the most metres. He is immovable at 15, and is the security net that all world class teams have. Ben Foden and Alex Goode will battle it out for a backup spot, as will Nowell, May and Watson who can all cover fullback.
My Chosen Squad (Starting XV and replacements)
Can this side win the World Cup? Yes it can. Will it? We’ll have to wait and see. The All Blacks, led by IRB Player of the Year Kieran Read, will be tough to knock off their perch, as will ever present South Africa. One must also not discount the rising Australia and Ireland, but I strongly believe that England will be right up there and who knows, maybe I’ll be writing a ‘Why England Won the World Cup’ article in a year and a half. Let’s hope so.