With the EPS announcement this week anticipation for the upcoming world cup, now less than a year away, on home soil is nearing fever pitch. So many questions regarding this England side remain unanswered while a high level of optimism and expectancy is brewing about what could be, maybe should be, in 2015. Yet, is 2015 a year too early as it comes upon us with worrying rapidity?
So far England has yet to cement a chosen centre partnership which works. Nor have they managed to formulate a potent back three, who can cause as much damage in attack as they can prevent in defence. Indeed the delaying of the squad announcement has thrown up so many questions about selection. Players are putting their hands up, who haven’t even played for England but are outplaying the men we thought would lead us into 2015, and of course there are injuries plaguing the squad as ever.
Although definitely nothing to complain about competition for places is greater than ever, and that is just for the squad. Semesa Rokoduguni has been one of the standout performers so far this season tearing the best defences to shreds as well as being solid in defence, something a lot of England wingers have lacked together, but he has no Test caps to his name. In fact the wings are possibly one of the biggest conundrums at the moment. Jonny May is on electric form for Gloucester, he has been for the last few seasons, but has been unable to translate that into the same success in the Red Rose of England. Christian Wade gave everyone a timely reminder of his scintillating speed against Leinster but has struggled for consistency this season. Jack Nowell is back from injury and looking more dangerous than ever. Anthony Watson’s challenge has been hindered by injury but what he showed in the summer tour cannot be forgotten. Then there is the forgotten man, David Strettle. His possible inclusion brings about the most debate. The chances of Strettle making it to the next world cup in 2019 are slim at 35, but he is in great form and England must focus on the here and now, which means 2015. Still many will question if he is just a great club player, as he lacks the game-changing ability to create something out of nothing that maybe a Rokoduguni or a Wade have. I think Yarde, on the back of some scything running against the All Blacks will claim one of the wing berths, but the other is a tossup between the rest, whoever it is needs to claim it and make it their own sooner rather than later.
The same issue arises in the centres. Still we are none the wiser to the best centre partnership. Arguably the Exeter duo of Sam Hill and Henry Slade has been the most consistent and has the best balance of guile, skill and power, but both are 21, uncapped and although they could get into the squad would need to play in almost every England game to get the necessary experience. Then there is the equally electric Bath duo of Eastmond and Joseph, possibly the most exciting partnership, on sublime form scoring 7 tries in 6 games between them. Now with Tuilagi injured they could claim a starting partnership, though they will have to prove their metal in defence. Yet Luther Burrell is still in great form too. Many are also calling for Sam Burgess to be thrown in when he is fully fit, and that adds even more uncertainty to the starting line-up. Again Stuart Lancaster will have a selection headache, he cannot just pick the form players but players who he thinks will form a consistent partnership in midfield that will be solid in defence and scintillating in attack. This partnership will need time, and with less than a year it is quickly disappearing.
More pressing there are still questions about England’s back row. James Haskell has been irrepressible as Wasps’ captain and he should certainly merit a place on the bench this autumn as cover for the whole back row. Otherwise, barring injuries it should stay the same as it has good balance in the trio of Wood, Robshaw and Vunipola. The second row will be interesting as Dave Attwood really has grown into the enforcer role this season and warrants a place in the engine room, but the Lawes Launchbury combination has been such a strong combination, while Lancaster doesn’t have time to dabble and experiment. The front row is also a nightmare, constant injury means numerous changes. If fit Corbisiero, Hartley and Cole will be fearsome, if injured Marler, Webber and Wilson can all step in, but behind them things start to thin out with question marks still hanging over Mako Vunipola and Henry Thomas’s scrummaging.
England have an array of options. Owen Farrell’s position remains contested with the supreme form of George Ford this season and the constant precocious displays of Danny Cipriani. Yet England need to cement a distinct half back partnership. Add to this the fact that the 10 and 12 need time to gel and get the backline flying, puts even more pressure on England to find the right combinations and get them established. A Ford and Eastmond axis is tried and tested at club level, but to leave Farrell out is a big call as he is commonly seen as one of the key leaders in the squad.
I relish the riches creating a real selection headache for Stuart Lancaster but don’t envy his position. Less than 12 months out from the long term target of the World Cup and we still couldn’t confidently name a side that, barring injury, would probably line up against Fiji come 2015. England needs to find their first choice side and cement the correct combinations, a team with balance, flair and precision. A team that can defend ruthlessly and finish with equal panache.
After the autumn internationals we will know how far this team has come and what line-up that team will consist of and hopefully it will show that in under a year together they will be fulfilling all our expectations come the world cup.
Do you think England have found their best team or will 2015 come too early?