READING DOWN the list of names as England announced their training squad for the Six Nations opener against Wales at the Millennium Stadium on 6 February, it becomes apparent that more than a few props are up for selection for the first time in a while.
Decisions must be made and meetings held but with fully-fit options for the No 1 shirt, with looseheads Joe Marler, Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola all ready to play, it will not be easy. Just ask England’s all-time cap-leader Jason Leonard. “I’m sure Stuart Lancaster and his coaches will say ‘it’s a nightmare’”, Leonard tells Rugby World, “but it’s a nightmare you’d like!”
According to the former Saracens and Harlequins loosehead, who was capped by England 114 times, Lancaster now has real strength in depth in his pack, and with British & Irish Lions players like Corbisiero and Vunipola back having missed the autumn Tests through injury, and with Matt Mullan named in the England Saxons squad, there are now four legitimate international options for the big team at loosehead. However, having seen the autumn Tests play out, Leonard imagines Marler will still be the front-runner for a starting berth.
He continues: “I must say I like Lancaster because he is honest, and will stick with the players who have done him proud and that’s Marler. But again, Corbisiero and Mako have been thereabouts (in the past).
“From a coaches point of view it’s great, because these two players keep each other on their toes. You even look at the tightheads – (David) Wilson, (Dan) Cole, (Kieran) Brookes – it’s difficult whatever way you do it. There’s strength in depth there when even three years ago you wouldn’t have said there was.”
The former prop agrees that Graham Rowntree and Lancaster will be happy with their options at No 1, but that it is made difficult by the standard of play Corbisiero and Vunipola have. So while Leonard believes Marler has seriously matured and improved since becoming captain of Quins and that “he was one of the players of the autumn Internationals”, he sees them all as aggressive scrummagers with high-work rates. It is the selflessness of their work in the last weekend before camp that may decide who deputises for Marler.
Leonard, who begins his tenure as RFU president in July, also explains why the pair of looseheads taken to Cardiff for the first Six Nations Test will be fit for a specific purpose.
“England now have the strength in depth where they can go horses for courses. Two years ago England went down to Wales and Adam Jones took them to pieces. Whether that was correctly or through the referee, the fact of the matter was that England hoped to dominate at scrum time, they didn’t, and with other areas across the field and the lineout faltering, they lost the game and they lost it comfortably.
“There’s no Adam Jones this time. So who do you put in? Corbs is a more competent set-piece prop but you have a look at a Joe Marler, who played against New Zealand, South Africa – okay, I’m not too worried about Australia in the front row! – you’re talking about someone against the best two teams in the world who had the better of his opposite man.”
Marler and Corbisiero may be the two looseheads to face Wales. But what does Leonard make of Wales’ tighthead options?
“I’ve seen a bit of Samson Lee. Wales pride themselves on scrummaging, they love it and with Warren Gatland being an ex-hooker, they will try and wind up someone. It will be a feisty, fraught game because it’s the first in the championship and it’s England versus Wales with the hoodoo of the World Cup coming up.
“I must say, I’ve been impressed in the limited games I have seen Lee; he is an international. You can see that from afar. But I’ve got to say that England at this moment in time, even with the loss of Ben Morgan and Joe Launchbury, have strength in depth, have to fancy their chances in the forwards. Though I’m sure the Welsh pack will have something to say about that!”
Jason Leonard was speaking at the launch of FLEXISEQ® Sport, the new drug-free treatment for professional athletes and other active people wanting to avoid joint pain and stiffness. www.flexiseq.com/sport.