As happened before the Autumn internationals, when 10 arguable first choice players were unavailable, England's injury jinx has struck again. Across the England set up, they are undoubtedly lucky to have an incredible wealth of talent in all positions, so is the situation a blessing in disguise with the world cup on the horizon?
England were already planning for the campaign without long term injury victims Joe Launchbury (Neck) and Manu Tuilagi (groin), but over the last few weeks, the squad has been further decimated by serious injury to Ben Foden (knee), Ben Morgan (broken leg), Courtney Lawes (ankle), Geoff Parling (knee), Tom Wood (ankle), Ed Slater (knee), Kyle Eastmond (shoulder) and Owen Farrell (limped out of the Clermont match, no official injury confirmation yet, although Nick Mullins tweeted he left the stadium wearing a knee brace and aided by crutches)
You may note, 4 of the listed injuries are to second row players, which will seemingly leave the pack understrength, however, with Dave Attwood and George Kruis the likely starter pairing with Graham Kitchener on the bench, it's a great chance for the fringe players to try and take the starting spots of Lawes, Launchbury and Parling, and let's face it, Kruis and Attwood is still a top drawer starting pair!
Most of the other injuries seem to have ready made replacements, Foden would likely have not been in the matchday squad, and certainly not the starting line up, thanks to last years star of the 6 nations, Mike Brown being the current incumbent of the 15 jersey, Ben Morgan was already fighting for the 8 jersey with Billy Vunipola and with Nick Easter back in the reckoning, that's another position in safe hands.
Tom Wood's 6 jersey may be a sticking point, however, James Haskell's recent performances and seeming improvement in his maturity since becoming the Wasps skipper may well see him claim a flank spot alongside skipper Chris Robshaw, who plays blind and who plays open is a whole other debate! Callum Clark is still in the EPS and although inexperienced at top level (and not a popular pick with Tigers fans!) he would be more than capable of filling in!
Now the one bright spot with the forwards, despite yet again being unable to unleash a full first choice 8, is that it looks so far that Lancaster will have a full compliment of front row forwards to choose from. Corbisiero, Youngs and Cole would arguably be the first choice, but Marler, Hartley and Wilson filled in admirably in the Autumn and the fight is on for first team spots, especially considering Mako Vunipola is fit, Mullan, Webber and Brooks are in with the Saxons and Alex Waller, one of the premierships most consistent props, must be screaming for a chance at some point!
Moving into the backs, Farrell's injury, if it indeed does keep him out, will give either Stephen Myler or Danny Cipriani an opportunity. For me, Ford and Farrell are incredibly similar players, Myler is a pragmatic kicking 10 who'll control a game, and Cipriani the wildcard. If you're after a 10 for your bench, you may as well take the wildcard.... you never know when you need that "X-factor"
In to the centres, I feel the injury to Eastmond (again, if confirmed) and the absence of Tuilagi may pay dividends for England in the long term. Neither Eastmond or Twelvetrees have been consistently impressive in the 12 jersey, whereas Burrell has, so i'd have him nailed on in the inside centre position. Brad Barritt was a defensive goliath in the Autumn, playing at 13 and must be in pole position to re-take that role in the 6 Nations, however there is some current clamour for Jonathan Joseph to start, especially following his stellar performance in Bath's victory over Toulouse may have some traction.
It's a difficult thing to try and predict the starting 23 as an outsider, but, I'll have a go at what I think would be the best bet from the remaining players in the EPS squad!
- T. Youngs
- B. Vunipola
- B. Youngs
Of course, replacements could be drafted in to the elite squad from the Saxons, and the likes of Matt Kvesic, Dave Ewers, Tom Croft, Eliot Daly, Henry Slade, Olly Devoto and dare I say it, Sam Burgess, will all be hoping for a phone call!
That said.....I still don't think England will win the championship.....
(Seems Brad Barritt is now also out of contention for a while, and Croft, and Christian Day are now training as cover for the forwards!)