By Jack Yates
YESTERDAY it was announced that 15 members of England’s Elite Player Squad would be made available for club action this weekend. Amongst the list are players in serious contention for a starting place against Wales in just over a week’s time, including the likes of Toby Flood, Manusamoa Tuilagi and Ben Morgan. However, England boss Stuart Lancaster has so far resisted ringing in the changes, having fielded the same side for both of England’s RBS 6 Nations fixtures. However, this next round of Aviva Premiership games presents a final opportunity for players to impress before Lancaster picks his 22 to face an in form Wales at Twickenham next Saturday.
Both Flood and Tuilagi will start for Leicester who face Saracens on Sunday, as they look to re-claim their starting places in the England team, having recently returned from injuries that have seen them replaced by ‘Charge Down’ Charlie Hodgson and Brad Barritt respectively. The duo desperately need game time under their belts in order to strengthen their case for starting places, having only amassed 187 minutes of game time collectively, following their return to action for the Tigers. Tuilagi was one of the few English success stories to emerge from a tumultuous World Cup and he will be looking to impose himself as first choice for the No 13 jersey. Unfortunately for Tuilagi, Barritt, who currently holds down the outside centre position, is a player in good form, exhibiting his fierce defensive tackling as well as having the benefit of playing outside the familiar face of Saracens team-mate Owen Farrell. Flood too faces competition from veteran fly half Hodgson, who has impressed on his return to the international scene, scoring both of England’s tries in their campaign so far, and making him a formidable opponent to displace.
Ben Morgan is a player who has excited many England fans in recent weeks, making two considerable impacts in his appearances off the bench. The Welsh-based 21-year-old is tipped to replace Phil Dowson, who has struggled to emulate his outstanding club form of last season at international level. Morgan, who will feature on the bench for the Scarlets in their clash against Leinster tonight, is well placed to win his first full cap for his country having demonstrated a commanding ability at the back of the scrum as well as being renowned as a fearsome ball career, which will stand him in good stead in an England outfit that have lacked attacking impetus and an ability to break the gain line.
Possible long shots for a starting place next Saturday include Gloucester speedster Charlie Sharples, who has not yet been given the opportunity to convert his electric club form on to the international stage. His chances are further enhanced by the dip in form of winger Chris Ashton, who has not been featuring regularly in the Northampton Saints team following his controversial departure to big spending Saracens. Harlequins full-back Mike Brown too has a lot to be optimistic about, scoring 11 tries already this season, as well as being awarded the Aviva Premiership player of the month award for January. However Brown faces tough competition from Ben Foden, who despite enduring a recent dip in form, possesses the ability to blow defences wide open with his clinical counter attacking, meaning that he will almost certainly feature next Saturday.
England will undisputedly go into their first home game of the tournament as overwhelming underdogs to a Welsh team who have gone from strength to strength, having built on the success of their emphatic World Cup campaign. In stark contrast is an England team who have scraped dogged victories against the two lowest ranked sides in the competition. It is clear that England will be markedly boosted by the return of some key players, such as Tuilagi and Lawes who bring a considerable amount of much needed physicality, especially when facing an immensely dangerous Welsh backline that boasts an average weight of 15st 6lbs with four players over 6ft 2ins. There is no doubt that Lancaster’s England will have to improve significantly if they have any chance of maintaining their hopes of defending their Six Nations title, with key returning players looking to play an integral role in what promises to be a momentous battle at Twickenham.