Ball In Touch: The latest edition of WhatCulture’s first regular rugby column by our rugby correspondent, Jeff Ball. With the new England Elite Performance Squad to be announced on Wednesday, we discuss who is likely to be picked.
A new year traditionally is seen as a fresh start, an opportunity to clear out the clutter and begin again. Therefore is it particularly apt England will be naming a new Elite Performance Squad (EPS) for the forthcoming Six Nations with 2012 barely two weeks old.
With what has went before dissipating into the haze of 2011, a wave of mid-season optimism is washing over the England set-up, a curious sensation given it is a feeling normally only seen around clubhouses in the middle of summer as boots are dusted down for the start of pre-season.
The man at the middle of this mood is Stuart Lancaster, king-in-waiting whilst the king makers across the road at Twickenham decide whether he will retain his on-loan crown. Nothing short of winning the Six Nations, and well at that, will keep him in on the throne, with the likes of Nick Mallet and Wayne Smith being groomed to usurp him if needed in the summer.
But for now Lancaster will pick his England team. The noises about building the culture have been pleasurable to the ears of those England fans disappointed by last year’s World Cup shenanigans, and his willingness to exclude Danny Care for twice being caught drink driving sending a strong message that role models are required, not just players.
Key to the selection will be the attitude towards the over 30’s, the likes of Cueto and Easter. Evolution or revolution will determine their involvement. His selection will have one and a half eyes on the 2015 World Cup, not just the Six Nations. Expectations should be lowered by we fans though, as though the team is brimming with potential, England is short of test match class across many positions. The challenge is not who is the best now, but who will be.
Props: With Sheridan’s age & injuries still getting the better of him, it falls upon Matt Stevens to be the senior man of the front row. Alex Corbisero, one of the few to boost his reputation at the World Cup and Dan Cole, with the beard and scrummaging of a man ten years his senior are the likely starting props whilst Gloucester’s Nick Woods has to get a call up, such has been his form. Joe Marler has got a lot of headlines recently, but we still aren’t sure if his temperament and scrummaging at ready for the Test arena.
Hookers: Dylan Hartley should take the 2 shirt with Steve Thompson retired and will be a key leader in the pack. Rob Webber, now with over 100 games for Wasps under his belt is ready to step up. Joe Gray benefits from being part of a table topping Harlequins side and brings an excellent throw.
Locks: A thin area not helped by Louis Deacon’s absence and Courtney Lawes’ recent injury that may see him miss the start of the tournament. Tom Palmer is likely to be one of the rarely sighted 30+ players, while Mauritz Botha will get the chance to build on his debut last year. David Attwood gets another chance after ill-discipline cost him his place last time around. Lawes’ injury may give the seemingly forgotten ex-captain Steve Borthwick a temporary chance to re-assert himself and bring his club form to the table.
Flankers: With the distinction between open and blind-side becoming ever blurred, a true open side is needed if England are to match the likes of Warburton and Pocock. However one is yet to present themselves, Andy Saull being the closest despite suffering Neil Back-esque criticism for being too small. Tom Croft, Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood are shoe-ins, with the latter two front runners for the captaincy. Wood gets my vote. Therefore if Saull is not picked, Calum Clark may get a chance, with the Northampton connection of Lawes and Wood being the clincher.
Number 8: Easter is unlikely to feature unless Lancaster has a change of heart and wants some experience in a quite fallow side, Ben Morgan of the Scarlets won’t have garnered so many headlines without being likely to feature. Luke Narraway, so unlucky to not made the step up earlier despite being excellent for the Saxons, will be the other choice.
Scrum-Half: As Danny Care reflects on some poor recent personal choices, Ben Youngs is guaranteed the nine shirt. Joe Simpson will continue his development despite being part of a poor Wasps side with Lee Dickson having played himself into the third scrum-half slot in recent weeks as Richard Wigglesworth is another long-term absentee.
Fly-Half: Injury means another key area is weak on numbers, Toby Flood the latest short term casualty. Charlie Hodgson will start and excel if England play a style built around his excellent passing. Owen Farrell can step in as cover but now is not his time in the pivotal role. Freddie Burns could be a surprise entry if the area suffers another injury.
Centres: The rising star of Owen Farrell should benefit from Lancaster’s wish to have a ball-playing 12, New Zealand style, rather than a battering ram. Manu Tuilagi when fit should join him, with Henry Trinder given the opportunity to build on his Saxons form in last year’s Churchill Cup and Saracens Brad Barritt could complete a 10, 12, 13 combination that has worked well this season.
Wingers: Chris Ashton has a couple of games since coming back from suspension to show he deserves to keep the 14 shirt. Matt Banahan will be kept away from the centres except in times of desperation and Charlie Sharples the chance to show his gas. David Strettle has been consistently unlucky not to feature more in the last few years and is banging on the door and may sneak in. Personally I hope he will over banahan, but I doubt it.
Full-Back: Ben Foden has been in scintillating form of late and is probably the most ‘world class’ player England currently have. Mike Brown though more than deserves a chance after his work at the back for ‘Quins and Delon Armitage should not be forgotten just yet, especially for his versatility. But recent poor form and the form of Strettle may just be enough to nudge him out.
Ball In Touch’s 32 man England EPS:
Props: N Woods, A Corbisero, D Cole, M Stevens
Hookers: D Hartley, R Webber, Joe Gray
Locks: C Lawes, T Palmer, M Botha, D Attwood
Flankers: T Croft, C Robshaw, T Wood, C Clark
Number 8s: B Morgan, L Narraway
Scrum-Halves: B Youngs, J Simpson, L Dickson
Fly-Halves: T Flood, C Hodgson
Centres: O Farrell, M Tuilagi, H Trinder, B Baritt
Wingers: C Sharples, M Banahan, C Ashton
Full-Backs: B Foden, M Brown, D Armitage
The following players will no doubt make up the bulk of the Saxons side when it is also on Wednesday. They can be considered ‘first reserves’ should England’s poor fortune with injuries strike again:
Props: D Wilson, M Mullan, J Marler
Hookers: D Paice, L Mears, J George
Locks: G Robson, J Gaskell, M Garvey, S Borthwick
Flankers: A Saull, J Gibson, P Dowson, T Johnson
Number 8: J Crane, T Waldrom
Scrum-halves: B Spencer, D Care, P Hodgson
Fly-halves: F Burns, R Lamb, R Clegg
Centres: J Turner-Hall, M Hopper, J Joseph, B Twelvetrees*
Wingers: D Strettle, U Monye, M Benjamin
Full-backs: N Abendanon, O Morgan
*Following CHristian Wade’s injury yesterday, I have bumped BHilly Twelvetrees up to the Saxons squad, a move I admittedly should maybe have done first time around.
What do you think of the squads selected? Leave your comments and squads below.