by Ben Coles
ENGLAND’S SQUAD announcement on Thursday morning saw two familiar faces recalled in James Haskell and Ugo Monye, whilst offering a further glimpse to the future in hooker Tom Youngs and prop Mako Vunipola.
On the back of a Six Nations campaign that surpassed expectations and flashes of brilliance on tour in South Africa in the summer, there is a significant level of pressure on Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team to continue the upward trajectory as England build towards 2015.
The squad still appears incredibly youthful and for Lancaster to lose integral players to injury as he has with Ben Foden, Alex Corbisiero and Tom Croft, deprives England of some handy experience in key positions. With regards to Foden, his absence means that Alex Goode and Mike Brown, with four caps between them, will fight it out to start at full-back next month. Both have proven themselves at Premiership level – they have won the title with Saracens and Harlequins respectively in the last two seasons – but Test rugby is on a different level altogether.
Of the new faces in the squad, James Haskell and Ugo Monye are veterans whose good form at club level has been rewarded. Haskell appears a more rounded player from his stints abroad in France, Japan and New Zealand, returning to London Wasps a better player and proving his quality at Test level with a staggering 28 tackles in the Third Test against South Africa in the summer.
Monye has recaptured his clinical finishing skills on the wing for Harlequins, leading him to be selected ahead of Wasps flyer Christian Wade and the hugely underrated Bath winger Tom Biggs. One of only three wingers in the squad along with Charlie Sharples and Chris Ashton, England lack a frontrunner for the No 11 shirt and after a couple of years away from the squad, Monye will not get a better chance to prove his worth.
Tom Youngs should expect to make his first start against Fiji as his meteoric rise continues in the No 2 shirt. His form for Leicester has been strong but there are moments where at key lineouts his accuracy appears to dip. The more he plays, the better he will become, but England lack depth at hooker and if Dylan Hartley picks up an injury then Youngs will be severely tested against Keven Mealamu or Tatafu Polota-Nau.
The final new boy will be a name unfamiliar to many England fans, but Mako Vunipola has been one to watch for some time. After impressing for the England U20s in 2011, he is enjoying a breakthrough season with Saracens, leapfrogging Nick Wood, Nathan Catt and Matt Mullan in the process to be selected for November. For Graham Rowntree to describe him as faultless is the highest of praise, and it will be exciting to see what he can produce.
Naturally there are several players unlucky to miss out. Freddie Burns has produced some excellent rugby for Gloucester so far this season but against the competition of Toby Flood, Owen Farrell and Goode has fallen short. Richard Wigglesworth is another who is unlucky not to be included. The inclusion of Toulon’s Steffon and Delon Armitage was always going to be unlikely, but England are not so strong that they can do without their services indefintely.
Predicting a successful benchmark for Lancaster’s side next month is tricky considering their relative inexperience as a group, but wins over South Africa and Australia are not unrealistic given they are also rebuilding their sides. England continue to grow, and November will be yet another stern examination of the direction they are heading in.
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