It doesn’t seem a minute ago that the QBE Autumn Internationals closed with England’s emphatic win over Australia, but the 2015 Six Nations is almost upon us, and given England’s current injury list it may well be too close for comfort.
The Six Nations kicks off in Cardiff in next week, with Wales hosting England. It’s a fiery start to the campaign, especially since England’s last visit to the Millennium Stadium in 2013 left them licking their wounds after a 30-3 mauling. Neither team will have forgotten that encounter and the hosts will be particularly keen to emulate such a victory, given that they will face England later in the year in the pool stage of the World Cup. Nor does the campaign get any easier for England, as two of their first three games are away fixtures – the second is a trip to Dublin to face the current Six Nations Champions.
England are definitely capable of beating these opponents; you need only look to last year’s tournament, when they overturned all but France in an unlucky night in Paris. However, the English team travelling to face Wales are not the England that we have come to know and love. The injury list for this year’s campaign is dire, and even the most stalwart English fan will feel a pang of discomfort without those familiar faces.
Owen Farrell is the latest to have been declared ruled out for the entire Six Nations campaign, after suffering a high-grade medial ligament strain during Saracens defeat to Clermont on Saturday. This falls at an unfortunate time for Farrell, who must have been looking to cement his place in the starting XV after George Ford’s electric performances in the latter stages of the Autumn series. Ford will now surely start at fly-half, which invites the question of who will provide back-up: both Danny Cipriani and Stephen Myler have been invited to England’s training camp, but there is as yet no indication of which way Stuart Lancaster will throw the dice. Cipriani has been championed by some as the most exciting fly-half in the Premiership, yet Myler has improved throughout his time at Northampton and provides a kicking accuracy second to none.
Lawes, Launchbury, Wood, Morgan…these names are all stalwarts of an English pack which has made itself one of the most intimidating set of forwards in the world
The injury list continues further down the backline, with Manu Tuilagi still injured and his fellow centre Brad Barritt also falling foul, and Luther Burrell suffering concussion. Eyes will surely turn to Sam Burgess, yet the rugby league convert has still only played a handful of games since switching codes and is a veritable novice compared to other options. Burgess is undoubtedly an exciting prospect for England but he needs to be introduced carefully, to smooth out the creases in his performance.
Looking to the forward pack, it’s a relatively mixed bag. Lions Dan Cole and Alex Corbisiero have returned from injury and introduce a frighteningly powerful combination at front row, yet injuries to Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Tom Wood and Ben Morgan taint that image. These names are all stalwarts of an English pack which has made itself one of the most intimidating set of forwards in the world. There are replacements, to be sure, but Lancaster will not relish facing the Welsh with big names like Lawes and Morgan. Billy Vunipola will have another chance to prove himself at No. 8 in the absence of the latter, and Nick Easter makes a surprise return to the national side nearly four years after his last international performance. The veteran back-rower will complement Vunipola’s brutish enthusiasm, and will provide a wealth of experience for the younger player to feed off.
Hartley needs to recognise that he carries his poor disciplinary record with him and referees will be less tolerant where he is involved.
There are further selection headaches for Lancaster, besides the troubles caused by injury. Dylan Hartley is a quality player, there’s no doubting that, but his current record for troublesome behaviour on the pitch is abysmal. In his last three performances, Hartley has received both a red and yellow card, the former for elbowing Leicester’s Matt Smith in the face. There is a plausible argument that both of these decisions were harsh – for one, Smith looked to dive to the floor in footballer fashion – but Hartley needs to recognise that he carries his poor disciplinary record with him and referees will be less tolerant in cases where he is involved. Lancaster now has to decide whether Hartley’s merits as a player are good enough to warrant inclusion, despite his controversial offences.
This all sounds rather downbeat, yet there are plenty of silver linings to this misfortune. Not all of those injured have been declared out for the whole tournament; we may yet see the likes of Wood, Burrell and Tuilagi take to the field, which is a heart-warming prospect. Also, the players drafted in to fill these holes are by no means bad. Cipriani brings an attacking edge which Lancaster will relish, whilst Tom Croft makes a long-awaited return to the national set-up. Couple these with Easter, George Kruis, Christian Day, Calum Clark, and the likes of Burgess, and England have got enough strength in depth to frighten the Welsh. There are some big shoes to fill, but plenty of big feet available.
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Image Courtesy of telegraph.co.uk