Stuart Lancaster today announced his latest England Elite Player Squad, a squad he described as “the toughest EPS selection we’ve had to make”, in total he made six changes from his last EPS.
The most notable area of change is in the back row where four of the previous squad, Callum Clark, James Haskell, Tom Johnson and Thomas Waldrom, drop down to the Saxons with two of their positions sacrificed for an extra second row and winger.
Replacing them in the back row are Gloucesterâ€™s former Worcester Warriors and Blundellâ€™s School flanker Matt Kvesic, who so impressed in Argentina, and Saracens latest recruit, the former Wasps and Harrow School number 8 Billy Vunipola.
Vunipola will have the opportunity to team up with his brother Mako at both club and country level as he too was named in the EPS, unsurprisingly after his British & Irish Lions exploits this summer.
Dave Attwood is the final new forward in the squad. The Bath second row had a very impressive tour of South America and will be challenging the established EPS trio of Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and Geoff Parling very hard for a Test spot.
Dylan Harltey retains his place in the squad despite incurring the wrath of Stuart Lancaster after being sent off in the Aviva Premiership final for calling the referee a cheat.
Reflecting on that decision, Lancaster said:
“I had a long hard think about it and a long conversation with him, I wanted to be reassured that he understands where the line is, what is right and what is wrong. He accepts that and he knows he needs a strong start to the season.”
In the backs David Strettle and former Millfield School pupil Jonathan Joseph drop down to the Saxons the squad. Bathâ€™s rugby league convert Kyle Eastmond replaces Joseph while former RGS High Wycombe flyer and 2012/13 Premiership top scorer Christian Wade replaces Strettle.
Marland Yarde comes in as the extra winger in the squad, replacing one of the many back row players, the former Whitgift star, like so many others, was in fine form last season and in South America. He, along with Wade, is expected to push Chris Ashton very hard indeed for his place in the team.
Lancaster has certainly not been afraid to plump for youth in this squad following the exciting brand of rugby that they produced in Argentina. What perhaps makes it all the more exciting is that this squad could represent a bit of a changing of the guard.
Billy Vunipola, for instance, can expect to push Ben Morgan to the limit for his place in the team, while even Chris Robshaw will be looking over his shoulder now. With Tom Croft surely nailed on at 6 and Vunipola and Morgan likely to battle for Number 8, the contest for the 7 shirt looks very tight indeed with Robshaw, Tom Wood and Kvesic all with very strong cases for their inclusion.
Likewise in the backs where the introduction of Eastmond and the excellent form of Twelvetrees at the back end of last season makes the established centre partnership of Barritt and Tuilagi look under more threat than ever, whilst with the inclusion of two new wingers, the days of full backs on the wing could be at an end, whilst the Ashton era is also under threat unless he can recapture some form.
The Saxons squad also has a bit of a younger feel to it, there are the 6 faces who drop down from the EPS but more exciting is the inclusion of the likes of George Kruis, Kearnan Myall and Luke Wallace in the pack, and one of the stars of Englandâ€™s U20 JWC win, Jack Nowell at centre/full back.
Also coming back into the squad are Jordan Crane (who was drafted in last year anyway), Rob Webber, Nick Wood, Northamptonâ€™s new star Luther Burrell, and Stephen Myler.
Perhaps most exciting of all though in the Saxons, at least for those of a sentimental disposition, is the return of Matthew Tait. Almost the forgotten man of English rugby, the 2007 World Cup finalist (who is still just 27!) was in outstanding form for Leicester at the back end of last season after returning from injury and it will be a joy for all to see him back in a white shirt.
England Elite Player Squad (EPS):
Forwards: David Attwood (Bath Rugby), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Alex Corbisiero (Northampton Saints), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers), Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), Matt Kvesic (Gloucester Rugby), Joe Launchbury (London Wasps), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Joe Marler (Harlequins), Ben Morgan (Gloucester Rugby), Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), David Wilson (Bath Rugby), Tom Wood (Northampton Saints), Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers).
Backs: Chris Ashton (Saracens), Brad Barritt (Saracens), Mike Brown (Harlequins), Freddie Burns (Gloucester Rugby), Danny Care (Harlequins), Lee Dickson (Northampton Saints), Owen Farrell (Saracens), Toby Flood (Leicester Tigers), Ben Foden (Northampton Saints), Alex Goode (Saracens), Kyle Eastmond (Bath Rugby), Manusamoa Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers), Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester Rugby), Christian Wade (London Wasps), Marland Yarde (London Irish), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers).
England Saxons Squad:
Forwards: C Clark (Northampton), J Crane (Leicester), P Doran Jones (Harlequins), W Fraser (Saracens), J Haskell (Wasps), T Johnson (Exeter), G Kitchener (Leicester), G Kruis (Saracens), K Myall (Wasps), D Paice (London Irish), G Robson (Harlequins), E Slater (Leicester), H Thomas (Sale), T Waldrom (Leicester), L Wallace (Harlequins), R Webber (Bath), N Wood (Gloucester).
Backs: A Allen (Leicester), L Burrell (Northampton), E Daly (Wasps), G Ford (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), J May (Gloucester), U Monye (Harlequins), S Myler (Northampton), J Nowell (Exeter), C Sharples (Gloucester), J Simpson (Wasps), D Strettle (Saracens), M Tait (Leicester), J Tomkins (Saracens), R Wigglesworth (Saracens).