Three areas Stuart Lancaster must get right

When Stuart Lancaster names his Elite and Saxons squads tomorrow, there are three key areas for England that I think he needs to address.

Those areas are: back row balance, the midfield, and the back three.

Many will disagree with me, saying that the tight five is where most of the selection action will be, and that is true. For the most part though, the selections in the tight five are going to be pretty obvious, Vunipola, Youngs, Wilson and Launchbury will almost certainly come in.

Some may say that fly half is an important area, but again selection there speaks for itself, Flood and Farrell will stay, Burns will be added.

No, it is in the back row, the centres and the back three where the real judgement calls will have to be made, the calls that will define England’s style of play, the exciting calls.

The current make up of the back row in the Elite squad is Tom Croft, Tom Wood, Tom Johnson, Phil Dowson, Chris Robshaw, Ben Morgan and Thomas Waldrom. A fine selection of players it certainly is, but it lacks balance. The absence of a genuine seven is a real issue still, that is not to knock Robshaw, I would still start him at seven but it would be good to have a real fetcher as a back up.

Phil Dowson is a fine player but it is hard to work out what position it is that really suits him in international rugby. Not really an eight, nor a seven, and given the likely battle between Wood and Croft for the six shirt, not to mention Johnson, not really in with a shout for that slot either. He will surely drop out.

Thomas Waldrom too looks likely to drop out having lost his starting place to Morgan during the Autumn internationals, while I would also strongly consider naming Tom Johnson in the Saxons.

It might be harsh given that he has done nothing wrong in an England shirt, but international rugby is a harsh environment and with Wood and Croft battling it out at 6 his game time would be limited anyway.

James Haskell will almost certainly be promoted from the Saxons after impressing in the autumn, and impressing Lancaster with his commitment to get back into the England frame for good. He will cover the whole back row but primarily eight and seven.

Billy Vunipola is creating waves alongside Haskell at Wasps but I would name him in the Saxons at this point, there is no need to rush his progress. What must seriously be considered though is the addition of either Matt Kvesic or Callum Clark to the senior squad.

In all likelihood Kvesic or Clark would be sent back to their clubs each week, but then so would Dowson. What makes more sense the 31 year old Dowson training with England but not playing, or a young player, in a position that needs the development of a young talent, training and learning alongside the best players in the country before getting game time for his club at the weekend?

It is a shame for Dowson though, for years he was overlooked for England selection when he really deserved it, now he is in a kind of limbo.

It is a similar story in the centres, too many players basically doing the same job. Currently England have Anthony Allen, Brad Barritt, Manu Tuilagi, Jordan Turner-Hall and Jonathan Joseph as their midfield options, with Owen Farrell also able to do a turn.

Nobody can argue with Tuilagi being there, while Barritt’s excellent end to the autumn means he too is very safe. As the most exciting centre at their disposal, Jonathan Joseph is also assured of his place.

Allen and Turner-Hall though are vulnerable. It is not really their fault either, they are both very good players but it is hard to fathom what purpose they have in this current squad. Turner-Hall does not offer much of an alternative to the status quo of the England midfield, while Allen just does not appear to have been on the radar for selection at all, despite offering the kind of calm authority that has at times been needed.

With Farrell also considered above them in the midfield pecking order anyway, Lancaster surely must look for something different? One of the two will surely make way for Freddie Burns at fly half, but if I were Lancaster I would send both to the Saxons and bring up Billy ‘36’ Twelvetrees from the junior squad.

Twelvetrees offers something that other England centres in recent times have not: a genuine kicking game and excellent distribution. His form can be a bit up and down but he is young, that’s normal. Much like the addition of a young seven, it would at least give him the exposure and experience that will be invaluable as England build towards 2015.

Finally the back three, here there is not necessarily a selection issue, though there could be, more a case of Lancaster needing to settle on what he sees as his ideal back three.

Currently in the Elite squad are Chris Ashton, Charlie Sharples, Alex Goode, Mike Brown and Ben Foden. All are likely to remain in the squad, with only Sharples looking slightly vulnerable.

It is a fine group of players but there is a problem, there are three full backs and just two wingers, and we all know a rugby team is made up of two wingers and a full back. Somewhere that mix is not quite right.

Ashton is virtually assured of one wing slot, while Alex Goode (ignoring his shoulder problem) is the man in possession at 15. What is less certain though is who will fill the 11 shirt. It seems that Stuart Lancaster would like Ben Foden or possibly Mike Brown to play there which is fine, but if that is the case then he needs to be putting pressure on their clubs to give them time on the wing. International rugby is no place to be learning a new position.

The potential selection he could make in the back three would be to bring in Wasps flyer Christian Wade, an out and out winger with pace to burn. It all depends on what Lancaster wants to do with his full backs. If he sees Foden or Brown as the long term England left wing then that is fine, keep the squad as it is, but if they are just a stop gap then better to also include another genuine winger such as Wade.

So my hopes for tomorrow are:

1)   Haskell & Kvesic/Clark in, Waldrom, Dowson & possibly Johnson out.

2)   Twelvetrees in, Allen & Tuner-Hall, Saxons.

3)   Clear decisions on the long term back 3. If Foden is the long term 11, keep it the same, if not bring in Wade for Sharples or move Tom Johnson to the Saxons to create a space.

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