This year the England rugby team have an opportunity to make history, and in doing so take full advantage of a truly once in a lifetime opportunity, and that is to win the Rugby World Cup on home soil. However, it is not always the players who will make the difference between winning and losing, and with this England team, more so than is usual, it will be head Coach Stuart Lancaster’s selections that make the difference between success, and failure in 2015.
Stuart Lancaster has one of the most difficult group of players to select his match day 23 from. He has a very strong squad, with at least 3 potential starting players in every position, however not many players who will be seen as definite starters, despite the Rugby World Cup being just 8 months away, and only 5 more competitive matches left before the opening game against Fiji. This only makes it more crucial for Lancaster to start making the right decisions now.
All this is compounded by the fact that England’s next fixture is against Wales at the Millennium Stadium on a Friday night. And if England are to win and truly put behind them the memories of their 30-3 loss two years ago, Lancaster must get the blend of attack and defence right. England arguably has the strongest pack in the world, and Lancaster has got a variety of players to choose from. In the front row I think Lancaster should select Corbisiero, Hartley and Wilson, a trio who will provide very strong attacking platform of the scrum that could win England many penalties, as well as a very good lineout throw strengthened by the organisation of the lineout brought by Lawes.
Alongside Lawes I would choose Atwood in Launchbury’s absence, who proved himself a menace to Leicester’s lineout in defeat with Bath. This is a front five who not only will provide a dominant set piece against a weaker Welsh pack, but will also assert themselves across the pitch. In the back row I would stick with the same selection that Lancaster has chosen consistently over the last couple of years, Wood at 6, Robshaw at 7 and Billy Vunipola at 8. Billy Vunipola is only picked ahead of Morgan due to Morgan’s unfortunate injury; however, I do feel Vunipola was one of the players who were unlucky to be scapegoated after the underperformance of the whole England squad in the first two tests of the autumn and had a fantastic game for Saracens in their win over Munster.
I also believe that Robshaw is quickly becoming the most influential player in the England squad, and outplayed both of McCaw and Hooper in the autumn, which for someone often labelled just a “workhorse” is quite an achievement. On the bench I think Lancaster should select; Mako Vunipola, Youngs and Henry Thomas as his front row replacements, Parling as his second row replacement, and Haskell should be put on the bench for back row cover.
I think that Mako Vunipola and Youngs in particular deserve their places on the bench due to the impact they provide to a game, and Parling merits his place on the bench with a high work rate and very good organisation of the lineout. Finally, Haskell is chosen as my back row cover for two reasons, firstly he is very versatile, and comfortable covering 6,7 and 8, and secondly Haskell brings a dynamism that without him could be lacking in England’s back row.
However, the real test for Lancaster is his selection of the backs, the outside backs in particular. This is an area where I believe Lancaster needs to start picking players based more on what they do have, rather than what they don’t have. My half backs would be Care and Ford. I think Care was unfairly dropped after England’s game against South Africa, and like Billy Vunipola has been a pivotal player for England in last year’s Six Nations and were in my opinion to of England’s best players of last year’s Six Nations.
And George Ford has now been the best Fly Half in the Premiership consistently since earlier last season, and those calling for Cipriani to start seem to have forgotten Ford’s consistent brilliance for Bath over the last year or so. In the centres is where I believe Lancaster must be brave. I can certainly see the temptation of playing a centre partnership of Twelvetrees and Barritt, to counter the attacking strength of the Welsh backline, however this is backwards thinking as a centre partnership such as that will not create try’s and with Halfpenny’s fantastic kicking you will always be hard pressed to beat Wales on penalties.
For that reason I think at 12 England must pick Kyle Eastmond. At 13 is where Lancaster has the hardest decisions. The traditional centre partnership has a rapier and a bludgeon, and for that reason I believe that Burrell or Tuilagi could work fantastically alongside Eastmond. Despite this, it would be Jonathon Joseph who gets the call for me. Eastmond and Joseph have been one of the best centre pairings on the world over the last year or so and know each other inside out and always seem to be on each other’s shoulders when one makes a break. Their chances will have been done no harm by their fantastic performances against Toulouse.
Eastmond made a fantastic break to set up Banahan’s try, whilst Joseph made a fantastic break for Watson’s disavowed try, and made the best break of the season so far, to set up one of the best tries I’ve ever seen finished off by Francois Louw. The only question that could be asked about this Bath trio of Ford, Eastmond and Joseph would be their defensive capabilities, but I believe they have proved their doubters wrong time and time again, as shown by the fact that no team has conceded less Premiership points than them, and only two teams have conceded less tries, and if you need proof of their commitment just watch George Ford’s try saving tackle on Yannick Nyanga. Finally my back three would be similarly adventurous.
I would pick Mike Brown at 15, who is finding his form again with Quins, and was England’s best player in last year’s tournament, and keeps his place despite pressure particularly in the form of Ben Foden, and on the wings I would play Jonny May and Christian Wade. For me it was a split decision between Anthony Watson and Christian Wade, but in the end I decided that Wade is arguably the most dangerous player England have, due to his exceptional speed off the mark, and sidestep. Finally, on the bench I would have Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, and Antony Watson. I do think that picking Owen Farrell ahead of Danny Cipriani is a harsh call on Cipriani, but Farrell is the more experienced head, and can cover 12 which could be useful if Eastmond were to get injured, and Anthony Watson is a fantastic option due to his pace and ability to cover wing or fullback.
The forward pack I would select have proved multiple times that they can gain parity, if not dominate every other pack in the world, and off the back of that I have selected a backline that can, and will rip apart any other backline in the world given an inch of space, this is a team that will win the Grand Slam if selected, and are probably England’s best chance of winning the World Cup in September given suitable time together.
In three days Lancaster will name his squad, and in two weeks and three days he will most likely name his match day squad for the game against Wales, and we can only hope he chooses well, or else England’s hopes of a Grand Slam could be over before they had even begun, one thing I can guarantee, Lancaster won’t be judged on his selection, but on the result, and that is something he must bear in mind as he can no longer claim that it is a developing squad.
Corbisiero 2.) Hartley 3.) Wilson 4.) Lawes 5.) Atwood 6.) Wood 7.) Robshaw 8.) B Vunipola 9.) Care 10.) Ford 11.) May 12.) Eastmond 13.) Joseph 14.) Wade 15.) Brown 16.) M Vunipola 17.) T Youngs 18.) Thomas 19.) Parling 20.) Haskell 21.) B Youngs 22.) Farrell 23.) Watson