Stuart Lancaster has unveiled the eagerly awaited squad for this years November internationals, with some interesting inclusions and notable exclusions from the 33 man group.
Given more time with which to finalise the makeup of the squad than in previous years, Lancaster has once again backed youth as well as sticking with many of his tried and trusted members. This longer window is a definite improvement over the old system which allows the coaching team to select based on form, particularly after seeing the first round of European competition.
Notable exceptions include the vastly in form Danny Cipriani and David Strettle, both of whom had very strong showings in last week’s opening games of the Champions Cup. The head coach has since explained that consistency and not ‘flash stuff’ is high up on his list for his fly-halves and so Stephen Myler and George Ford have been selected ahead of the Sale stand-off, along with Owen Farrell. Cipriani can rightly feel aggrieved by this decision given that game management is one of the main strings to his bow that he has added since joining the Sharks.
He also has more experience at the highest level than the other two and his goalkicking has been very consistent this season (including some monster efforts in the defeat against Munster). One wonders if perhaps the reputation of Cipriani as a bit of a maverick and some previous indiscretions have harmed his chances, as Lancaster always tends to favour players who he can trust and bring in to this new ‘culture’ he is trying to instill in the England set up.
While Cipriani can possibly accept this and continue working hard to force his way in, David Strettle must be banging his head up against a wall wondering what more he needs to do to get in. The Saracens winger has been excellent for all of last season and has started brightly this term.
His finishing has improved immensely since his previous England days and he has added to his work in the air and his overall defensive game. One would assume that Strettle will be first in line to join the squad if any injuries occur during training or games, which they inevitably will.
Elsewhere, the front row has a decidedly youthful and inexperienced look about it given the injuries present. The Lions front row of Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole are all unavailable for the entirety of the series because of long-standing issues. While this gives a great opportunity to give some younger players a bit more game time and really develop some depth before the World Cup, fielding the likes of Matt Mullan and Kieran Brookes against the All Blacks and South Africa will be something of a baptism of fire.
Nevertheless, these guys have been in and around the squad in the last couple of years and I expect them to do well. Joining Dylan Hartley in the hooker berth is Rob Webber who has started the campaign strongly in an impressive Bath pack.
Missing the injured Geoff Parling and Ed Slater shouldn’t be too much of a problem as it otherwise might have been given the excellent group of locks that are available to England at the moment. Ever-presents Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury are included, with the latter no doubt hoping to again prove how valuable he is with his Wasps contract expiring at the end of the season.
Joining them are Dave Attwood, who has been immense for Bath in the Aviva Premiership this year and will hope to finally break into the starting jersey, and the uncapped George Kruis of Saracens. Kruis is a welcome inclusion, underrated yet silently going bout his job very well over the last two seasons. Whether he will get any game time remains to be seen.
Graham Kitchener can feel unlucky not to be included given his strong form and leadership for Leicester but no doubt he is next in line if any of the above drop out.
The back row has a familiar look about it with Chris Robshaw retaining the captains armband as expected. Northampton’s Calum Clark is again included which many fans will debate, but given the injuries to Tom Croft and Tom Johnson this was to be expected. Lancaster has coached Clark at Leeds several years ago and obviously sees something in him. Jamie Gibson of Leicester should also be in the mix if injuries occur here.
The lack of a proper openside is still apparent but Graham Rowntree and Stuart Lancaster have persisted with this six-and-a-half approach for the last couple of years and it hasn’t served them too badly. Matt Kvesic will no doubt have to improve his consistency to get a look in for the Six Nations though he must be on the radar for some of his excellent breakdown work.
In the commentary box, the debate about Steffon Armitage will rage on as they eke every last bit out of that story but he his not eligible for England at the moment so I’ll leave that where it is until circumstances change.
There were no changes at scrum-half, where you’d expect Danny Care to pick up where he left off , with Ben Youngs and Lee Dickson vying for the bench spot. Freddie Burns hasn’t quite met the required standard at 10, as he has looked shaky at times behind a Leicester pack that hasn’t always been going forward this season.
The big question as ever with England is the centre partnership. Brad Barritt has rightly been called back up after his return from injury. The big Sarries 12 has produced some of his trademark defensive displays and might work well in combination with one of the two bath centres who have been the standout pair so far.
With Manu Tuilagi out with a groin problem, the midfield is really up for grabs and so hopefully this series will really nail down who has what it takes at international level and who doesn’t. Billy Twelvetrees is very lucky to hang on to his spot but again Lancaster has stuck with a player he knows and trusts. Young Exeter fly-half Henry Slade has filled in brilliantly at 13 this year and you feel it is only a matter of time before he makes it into the full squad, having impressed with the Under-20s and Saxons.
Finally to the back three which provides some really interesting debate. Much of the talk will be about the uncapped Semesa Rokoduguni, the Fijian-born winger who also serves in the British Army. Rokoduguni has absolutely lit up the field on both sides of the ball for Bath in the last year and is fully deserving of his place. It would not be unlikely to see him start if he impresses the coaches in training. His acceleration and footwork are top class and despite looking rather slight, he weighs in at over 16 stone and is no slouch on the defensive end. Chris Ashton is the man to drop out in his place.
A divisive figure with supporters, Ashton’s try scoring record this season has been impressive and his tracking of the ball is right up at where it was a couple of years ago. Questions still remain over his defensive organisation, one-on-one tackling and presence under the high ball however, and these are big questions when it comes to the International arena. There is also no place for full-back Ben Foden who has returned to some of his best rugby. Instead Mike Brown and Alex Goode are the two rewarded for their service even if the former has fallen short of his own high standards in the last few weeks.
Jack Nowell has returned well from his injury and deserves another stint at Twickenham but will need to really perform and add to his try count. Marland Yarde and Jonny May also come back into the fold, somewhat contorversially. I like the look of Yarde but he hasn’t played amazingly well since his move to Quins and will need to remind Lancaster and England fans why he was brought in the first place.
May is another difficult one as he has scored a few tries in both the Premiership and Challenge Cup already but tends to do so against poor opposition and does a lot of sideways running during his previous time in a white jersey. He is another who will have to show his mettle on the defensive end to cement his spot.
All told this is quite an exciting squad for England. A real opportunity for some people to prove they’re good enough to not only be in the squad come Six Nations and World Cup time, but actually be in the starting XV. A strong Autumn International series would really give the team some confidence going into the New Year and develop some depth at key positions.
Four consecutive weeks of international rugby against some of the top sides in the world is not easy but England need to be going in this looking to win every game and come away with at least two wins.
Forwards: Joe Marler (Harlequins), Matt Mullan (Wasps), Brookes (Newcastle), David Wilson (Bath), Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), Rob Webber (Bath Rugby), Dave Attwood (Bath), George Kruis (Saracens), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Courtney Lawes (Northampton) Calum Clark (Northampton), James Haskell (Wasps), Ben Morgan (Gloucester), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Tom Wood (Northampton)
Backs: Danny Care (Harlequins), Lee Dickson (Northampton), Ben Youngs (Leicester), Owen Farrell (Saracens), George Ford (Bath), Stephen Myler (Northampton), Brad Barritt (Saracens), Luther Burrell (Northampton), Kyle Eastmond (Bath), Jonathan Joseph (Bath), Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester), Mike Brown (Harlequins), Alex Goode (Saracens), Jonny May (Gloucester), Jack Nowell (Exeter), Semesa Rokoduguni (Bath), Marland Yarde (Harlequins)