When Lancaster names his 32-man Six Nations squad on January 11th, he is likely to do so with one eye on 2015. That being said, the first hurdle to overcome is beating Scotland at Murrayfield and his match-day 22 will need to combine experience at Test match level, with fresh talent to promise progress well beyond the Six Nations.
The rulebook prevents Lancaster from making more than 10 changes to the squad that was listed for the World Cup, although he may introduce two more new names to this list. This makes the process somewhat restrictive given the pressure that the interim coach is already facing to inject new life into England Rugby and introduce younger talent to the game.
Given the 10 change rule picking a 32-man squad was near impossible. Without this restriction, a number of the positions listed below could have been filled by players who were not invited to New Zealand but would arguably offer a great deal more than those Lancaster may well have to stick with. It is hard to imagine just how powerful a side England could have had at its disposal if Lancaster were not subject to the rulebook. Nevertheless, England has arguably the best pool of talent from which to select and places across the squad will be sharply contested.
The England 32 I’d like to see announced on January 11th:
1) Dylan Hartley (Northampton)
A key ingredient to England’s forward line up. Having recently committed to a future with Saints until 2015 there is plenty of time for the hooker to translate domestic growth and development into National success.
2) Joe Gray (Harlequins)
At just 23 Gray’s inclusion in the Six Nations squad could prove to be pivotal in supporting preparations for 2015. Former England under 20s and Saxons squad player, this is by far one of the most exciting young players in English Rugby at present.
3) Lee Mears (Bath)
Certainly not my first choice but, given selection restrictions and the number of younger players at Lancaster’s disposal, he might well be wise to spread age and experience thinly throughout the squad, to provide much needed support to less experienced players.
4) Matt Stevens (Saracens)
Perhaps most heavily associated with the no.3 jersey, Stevens is able to cover both sides of the scrum which will always play to his advantage when it comes to such a wide potential pool of players. With only one replacement prop position at his disposal, Lancaster will have to think intelligently in terms of versatility and preparing for the worst case scenario.
5) Joe Marler (Harlequins)
Whilst Marler might not offer the versatility that Stevens does, he offers ball-carrying capabilities well beyond his position. He’ll offer strength in open play, would work effortlessly with Gray given the experience at Quins, and moreover he’s the kind of colourful character that fans pay good money to see.
6) Dan Cole (Leicester)
A walking definition of dedication and loyalty. The Tigers prop has firmly established himself at Leicester and would no doubt bring a consistency, together with Six Nations experience, to the squad.
7) David Wilson (Bath)
Overlooked by many given the presence of other, perhaps more versatile, props, at 26 Wilson could nonetheless represent a key element to England’s future set up. He offers discipline, strength in the set piece and the youthfulness to continue on into 2015.
8) Alex Corbisiero (London Irish)
Having played rugby since the age of five, Corbisiero lives and breathes the sport and offers the grounding, experience and determination to warrant inclusion not only in Lancaster’s 32 man squad. but, in my mind, in his starting line up at Murrayfield.
9) Courtney Lawes (Northampton)
With the added option of playing Lawes at no. 6, he is arguably one of Lancaster’s easier selection choices in terms of versatility. Quick to make an impact at Saints, Lawes would do well in partnership with Botha in particular.
10) Louis Deacon (Leicester)
Evidently rated by the former coaching set up at England Rugby, Deacon was a key presence in New Zealand and has been widely recognised by team mates off the pitch. Whilst at 31 he may fall into the older age category of a Six nations squad, if Lancaster’s focus is to build a positive, amicable but disciplined environment in the England camp, then a player like Deacon will be key to this.
11) Tom Palmer (Stade Francais)
Lancaster is yet to announce his stance on players who compete for sides outside of England. Whilst disregarding players who play abroad is a decision I support, Palmer is an established part of the England second row and, Man of the Match against France in last year’s Six Nations, will be sorely missed if Lancaster refuses to alter the ruling.
12) Mouritz Botha (Saracens)
Acknowledged publicly by Lancaster as Saxons coach for his ability to hit rucks and to tot up tackles time and time again to outshine those vying for his place, Botha has surely earned the right to put this to good use this time around?
13) Tom Croft (Leicester)
Backed by Moody to take over the reigns as England captain, Croft’s inclusion within the 32-man squad goes without question.. While he wouldn’t be my first choice for the captaincy, he certainly offers the squad a level-headed, calming influence that it will most certainly need if it is to recover successfully from the post-New Zealand turmoil.
14) Tom Wood (Northampton)
Another potential candidate for the captaincy, Wood has the ability to slot comfortably into the back row but also displays flashes of a natural openside- something which can only be music to Lancaster‘s ears. He can only hope that the pickle he found himself recently in against Leicester has been forgotten.
15) Luke Narraway (Gloucester)
An all rounder at no. 8 who, in the absence of Moody and Haskell, should surely be expecting the opportunity to rejoin the England line up. I would favour the Gloucester captain far and above a return from Easter and it’s likely that Lancaster, having previously named Narraway captain of Saxons against the Barbarians last Summer, would agree.
16) Andy Saull (Saracens)
Another player who seems to be reaping the rewards of the Saracens military efficiency. One of the few natural openside flankers that exist in the Premiership currently, Saull set tongues wagging most recently when he utilised the absence of Jacques Burger to put in an impressive performance against Quins at Twickenham. In fact Burger’s absence, which one would have expected to have a massive impact on the Saracens side, is actually going near on unnoticed thanks to the handy work of Saull. Faith from Lancaster at this stage could be just the kind of preparation needed to expose the potential of the 23 year old. One to watch.
17) Luke Wallace (Harlequins)
England have for a long time struggled when it comes to a natural openside flanker. Finding such a player is vital when we look to the likes of Wales’ Warburton and New Zealand’s McCaw. Wallace might well be just what England is looking for. At just 21 he has a huge career ahead of him. If we look at the success of Warren Gatland’s selections for his 2011 World Cup squad, there were players in that line up that critics deemed too young and too inexperienced to compete at an international level. Well the critics got that one pretty wrong- look at North, Priestland, Williams, Halfpenny, Bevington- all players who are competing with ease alongside, and against, players boasting a decade’s more experience than them. If Lancaster places the same kind of trust in Wallace, he will enjoy the time and opportunity to mould the young talent into the kind of no. 7 England Rugby has been missing.
18) Tom Waldrom (Leicester)
Not an easy decision but I have faith that, having made his presence felt at Leicester, the same can be done for England. Earning a place in New Zealand as cover for Easter, and later filling Sheridan’s shoes after injury, Lancaster might well want to give Waldrom the chance to prove his ability in the starting squad this time around.
19) Ben Youngs (Leicester)
The first name I wrote down when it came to my 32-man squad. Youngs, for me, represents everything that England Rugby must now be about; youth, energy, discipline and a passion for the game. He boasts Tiger Academy, England Junior National Academy, and England Sevens’ experience, and he’s experienced International rugby at both junior and senior level. He’s played fly half, full-back, centre and has now made his name at scrum half, demonstrating versatility and an overwhelming willingness to develop and to mature with the game. For me, a future England captain and one of the most deserving players at Lancaster’s disposal.
20) Joe Simpson (Wasps)
Again, perhaps not a player I would have opted for in the absence of selection restrictions, particularly with the availability of now fit Danny Care. Simpson does, however, offer experience of a World Cup which saw the England squad put well and truly through its paces. Let’s hope the experience was character building and he is able to encourage many a fresh set of legs to look to the Six Nations as an entirely new ball game.
21) Ben Spencer (Saracens)
Having impressed at Saracens enough to be offered a full time contract, the 19 year-old scrum half has benefited greatly from the absence of Wigglesworth. His input into sealing Saracens win over Quins in the Aviva Premiership will not have gone unnoticed. Again, it is crucial that England Rugby utilises this selection opportunity to provide emerging talent with a chance to experience preparations, as well as competition, within a National camp. Spencer is a player who, if given such exposure now, could well be a second next generation scrum half alongside Youngs ready to do battle in 2015.
22) Toby Flood (Leicester)
Flood remains a powerful player at no. 10; he is unpredictable and continually makes life hard for defence. Moreover, his composure is exactly what a Nation morning the loss of Jonny Wilkinson will be looking for come February.
23) Charlie Hodgson (Saracens)
One half of a Saracens club pairing that could prove incredibly powerful for England. Hodgson has been tipped to fulfil the position of Flood’s understudy but with Farrell at centre, he could well be hot on the heals of Flood to start at no.10 to create a pairing that’s success can be translated onto the National stage. The record Aviva Premiership point scorer, Hodgson was unfortunate to miss out on selection for the World Cup. In the absence of Jonny, it might be time for luck to swing his way.
24) Manu Tuilagi (Leicester)
Ferry jumping aside, this guy is a powerhouse and one whom Andy Farrell will no doubt have his eye closely on. One of the most exciting prospects for International rugby and a player that England needs to be working hard to make the very most of.
25) Owen Farrell (Saracens)
Speaking of the Farrells, Farrell Junior is the name on everyone’s lips. Move over Jonny, make way for Owen. Whilst this is a huge amount of pressure to put on the young player’s shoulders, I’m quietly confident that he can handle it. Having already proven that even a sell-out Twickenham crowd is not enough to distract or intimidate, Farrell has demonstrated kicking potential above and beyond any young player to come through the ranks in English rugby. At just 20 he is already demonstrating great maturity and a confidence to exert authority when needed on the field. No doubt he’ll be doing all he can to make himself known to Lancaster (and to make a certain backs coach proud).
26) Matt Banahan (Bath)
Whilst Banahan had little opportunity to contribute towards England’s progress in the World Cup he remains one of Bath’s stand out players, recently the only try scorer in the Heineken Cup match which saw them beaten 13-18 by Leinster. Banahan is a sizeable, dominant player, who is able to play at centre or on the wing. Tindall was never going to make my 32, and I can only hope that Lancaster selects Banahan in his absence as a more deserving candidate with far greater potential.
27) Brad Barritt (Saracens)
My first choice to partner Farrell in mid-field, the Saracens centre has long been wavering on the brink of National selection. If his recent Aviva Premiership, man of the match winning victory over Harlequins is anything to go by, he has a fair few tricks up his sleeve to please the crowds. This might be just the time for him to begin a successful career for England.
28) Ben Foden (Northampton)
Never one to be distracted, even with the imminent arrival of a baby Foden, the full-back is undeniably a crucial element of England’s so called next generation of elite level rugby. Foden, to me, represents the ideal balance of youth, with the opportunity to develop and shape, and core of experience, which some of even the older, more experienced players could learn from. He offers a consistency of play that breeds confidence and assurance; something which every England Rugby fan could surely do with right about now.
29) Chris Ashton (Northampton)
Whilst Ashton appears to be fighting his own battles both on the field and off it with Northampton’s Jim Mallinder, he remains undeniably one of England’s first choice wings. After a month out of action however, he’ll need to demonstrate this absence has not hampered his performance, while greater discipline with most certainly be another requirement of Lancaster’s before he is willing to serve up a place for Ashton. The wing has also been linked with a lucrative move to Saracens - an exciting prospect for a squad which looks potentially set to lose the greatest number of players to Six Nation, and later International, duties.
30) Delon Armitage (London Irish)
Having been ruled out of last year’s Six Nations after receiving an eight week ban, it’s expected that Armitage will feature in this year’s squad, provided he doesn’t re-enact previous misconduct. He promises the ability to play comfortably at full-back or wing.
31) Charlie Sharples (Gloucester)
‘The fastest winger in the west’, the 22 year-old was unfortunate not to make the World Cup squad but, having made his way well onto the lips of pundits and sports writers without playing so much as a minute at international level, the youngster has more than proven his worth to the interim coaching team. A hugely exciting young prospect and one that we can only hope will be invested heavily in at a National level.
32) Alex Goode (Saracens)
Another impressive young talent worthy of selection, Goode has already excelled with England Saxons and has no doubt caught the eye of Lancaster along the way. Goode is yet another player who is benefiting greatly from the club culture that Saracens has created.