In the run up to the Rugby World Cup (RWC) in England next year, all eyes are on Stuart Lancaster and his picks for the upcoming QBE Autumn Internationals as he gives us an idea of what to expect.
The current standings on the IRB world rankings hold England in a precarious 3rd place, having only recently secured the place with Australia dropping down one into fourth. Above England are South Africa, and most deservedly the current World Champions, New Zealand.
There is an increasing amount of competition for World Cup positions with star-studded performances from vast numbers of players each week in the domestic games. Is this abundance of talent a blessing or a curse? We will leave that decision to Stuart Lancaster as he ponders over the team sheets for the QBE Autumn Internationals. For now, we can only speculate.
England are known for their strong and formidable pack and they certainly have the players for it. So, looking at the forwards, who should we be watching?
Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints): As captain of the Northampton Saints, Hartley has been a regular on the England scene for a few years now, and is the natural choice over alternative hooker Tom Youngs. However, his lack of discipline on the pitch may hinder him still. Going down in history as the only person to have received a red card in a premiership final, and having had a succession of bans from the game, Hartley is his own worst enemy. At present, his talent on the pitch in the scrum and lineout outweigh his infractions, but he needs to watch himself before his is more of a liability on the pitch than off.
Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers): He was awarded the number 2 shirt after Hartley was unable to play because of injury, giving him a chance to prove himself. His selection as part of the Lions squad last year was testament to Youngs’ talent on the pitch. Having previously been a centre, Youngs has great understanding of spacing and pacing on the pitch, as well as being built for the physicality of being a forward. Sadly, a shoulder injury has ruled Youngs out of any more dazzling performances in the next four months.
Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers): A formidable lock who’s skill in the lineout is held in great esteem by the England team. However, two concussions in one month and the RFU’s recent efforts to take concussions seriously mean that he has been out for the past month, and is a big question mark on Lancaster’s team sheet. With concussions, it is no longer a case of if the player feels ready, but if the doctors will let him play.
Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints): Comparing this beast of a man’s tackle to that of a steamroller isn’t far from the truth. When on the pitch, Lawes offers a lot in the area of defence, flattening any opponent that gets in his way. He has been blighted by injury missing a vast number of Six Nations campaigns and losing his spot to fitter players. This persistent starter for Saints, but inconsistent starter for England may still have something to prove.
Joe Launchbury (London Wasps): After being called up as injury cover to the England squad in the 2012-2013 season, Launchbury was voted man of the series after a stunning performance in the autumn tests. His partnership with Lawes has been frequently given praise, and this may weigh in on selection for the team.
It would do the flankers an injustice if we did not address the rumour mill circulating around Steffon Armitage’s return to British soil in time for the world cup. Bath have just recently said that Armitage’s rumoured move to them is now dead, and that he will remain at Toulon. But Toulon have agreed to release Armitage to England, should they want him. He might seem like an outside chance, but there should be no forgetting that it was this year that Armitage was awarded ERC European Player of the Year
Chris Robshaw (Harlequins): Robshaw is an interesting case. He has been the England captain for the past 2 years but not always necessarily the best choice for flanker. He has been controversially dropped from the Harlequins captaincy this year to allow him to focus on England and the upcoming World Cup. Robshaw is the kind of player who visibly puts his body on the line each match, and works well under pressure. If selected, he would never be a bad choice.
Tom Wood (Northampton Saints): Named the 2011 Aviva Premiership player of the year, Wood is a man to go to when a strong defence is needed, often getting in many damaging tackles on the opposition. Looking at the pool England are in, often dubbed the ‘pool of death’, a strong defence might be needed when facing Australia and Wales. Wood was also selected as captain last year in Argentina when Robshaw was on tour with the Lions, and may have aspirations to captain again.
Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers): Another player whose career has been spent injured, most notably after having suffered a broken neck two years ago that could have put him out of the game forever. Croft offers a threatening attack with the ability to accelerate to a fast pace and evade tacklers with ease. On several occasions he has been seen to make long runs more normally associated with wingers.
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