By Charlie Morgan
As Rugby World Cup 2015 creeps closer, the upcoming Six Nations will provide more fascinating insight into each competing country’s prospects. As the only northern hemisphere nation to beat a member of the big three in November, England have every right to feel hopeful.
However, Stuart Lancaster’s squad has also been decimated by a post-Lions injury list. Alex Corbisiero, Manu Tuilagi and Geoff Parling are but three important players that will take no part. But why dwell on missing personnel? Better to concentrate on controllable factors.
Pick Jack Nowell
This might seem a punchy call to start with, especially given the fine form of Jonny May. Even so, Nowell has everything – deceptive pace, outrageous strength and assured one-on-one tackling skills. Marland Yarde and Christian Wade were both set to start against Argentina before niggles struck and now have picked up long-term problems. Chris Ashton looks lively again for Saracens, so that leaves one spot open alongside Mike Brown for Exeter’s prodigious 20 year-old.
After an outstanding performance against the European champions Toulon last month, there should be no doubts about his ability to translate raw ability into high-pressure situations. In short, Nowell is primed and ready for Test rugby – all he needs is for Andy Farrell to iron-out an over-eagerness in defence that was evident in Exeter’s recent loss to Harlequins.
More of the same up front
The absence of Corbisiero means Lancaster is shorn of his one genuine World XV contender. That said, Graham Rowntree has at least two capable charges in every position across the tight five. Locks Graham Kitchener and Dave Attwood are fine deputies to Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury. Jamie George’s domestic displays should soon see him join Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley as a hooking option. Looseheads Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola could easily be trusted with a Test start, likewise Dan Cole and David Wilson at tighthead.
As a brave but ultimately futile performance against New Zealand showed, England’s pack possess a fine mix of accuracy at set-piece, work-rate and enough dynamism to provide running threats all over the field. That’s even before we get to the back row…
A “genuine openside” isn’t the Holy Grail
This one is aimed at England fans, who often fail to recognise just how lucky they are. One downside to BT’s comprehensive coverage of the Aviva Premiership this year has been the cacophony of calls to promote a scavenging number seven whenever they excel on television. As good as Will Fraser and Luke Wallace are, that would be ill-advised at the moment. Having impressed out in Argentina, Matt Kvesic has lost ground as part of a Gloucester side going backwards. And besides anything else, the present formula is working nicely.
Billy Vunipola has been a revelation and could conceivably be among the world’s top three number eights by 2015. Encouragingly, Ben Morgan has been stung into action by a competitor. Although Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric were superb in Wales’ Slam-busting last season, England were handicapped without a willing, effective ball-carrier from the base of the scrum to free up captain Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood. Now Vunipola and Morgan are in wrecking-ball mode, the flankers can do their thing.
In the victory over the Wallabies, that meant nullifying the influence of Michael Hooper – the best openside on the planet this year – at the breakdown. England’s captain and his chief lieutenant are guaranteed to make mountains of tackles. Robshaw’s handling skills transfer the point of impact to give teammates a better shot of getting over the gainline, too. Balance is the key, and injuries may require a re-jig. But for now, England are onto something good.
Be brave at fly-half
Toby Flood’s Channel-hop at the end of this season means he will not be part of Lancaster’s World Cup plans. There’s no point playing him in the Six Nations – certainly his omission can be a constructive step. This has to be the tournament Owen Farrell’s distribution finally improves and England identify a new deputy to be a prominent part of the next 18 months.
That man should be Freddie Burns. Although immersed in a Kingsholm nightmare right now, he is a complementary foil to Farrell and will look a million dollars behind a firing pack at Welford Road should the rumours come to fruition. Stephen Myler and George Ford are commendable contenders too, while Henry Slade and a bloke called Danny Cipriani are more left-field. Whoever gets the nod needs to be given faith and time. Lancaster is pragmatic enough to do that.
Overturn Wales at Twickenham
Despite a year of poor results for France, a trip to Paris is a beastly beginning to the campaign. England then arrive at Murrayfield before welcoming Ireland – two tough assignments. March 9 is the date that will be indelibly etched on Lancaster’s consciousness, though. When Warren Gatland’s men come to Twickenham, success is imperative.
As well as being among the most highly-charged fixtures around, there is a double-edged psychological sword to consider. Firstly, an England win would all but eradicate the pain of their 30-3 humbling 12 months previously. Secondly, the next competitive meeting between these teams at HQ comes in Pool A of the World Cup. A happy omen might prove valuable.