England's likely lads set for senior service
Half of England's World Cup squad are likely to be cast aside when interim head coach Stuart Lancaster names his elite player squad (EPS) on Wednesday ahead of the Six Nations.
While retirements, injuries and ageing players past their best allow for a natural changing of the guard, this announcement was always likely to have a "new era" feel to it.
The four-yearly World Cup cycle inevitably leads to a sense of renewal in its aftermath. England's failed campaign and the off-field shenanigans that blighted their time in New Zealand only made the need for a fresh start more urgent.
The selection challenge facing Lancaster is two-fold. His mission statement when handed the job was to put foundations in place for England's future prosperity.
That implies blooding youngsters who will be capable of delivering World Cup success on home soil in 2015.
Then again, if Lancaster is to have any chance of persuading his RFU employers to retain him in the post, rather than recruit a more experienced head honcho of world renown, he needs results.
And England do not have the sort of fixture list that lends itself to comfortable victories.
An opening Calcutta Cup clash at Murrayfield against a Scotland side bent on revenge for their World Cup elimination by the auld enemy comes with a sizeable health warning.
So does their second fixture against Italy in Rome, where England have scraped four- and five-point wins on their last two visits.
Add in a trip to Paris, either side of Twickenham dates with World Cup semi-finalists Wales, and Ireland, who have won on three of their last four visits to south-west London, and a pessimistic red rose supporter might surmise that Lancaster will do well to deliver a mid-table finish.
He could certainly have done without the rash of injuries that have beset some of his key players in recent days. Toby Flood, Manu Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes could all have expected to start at Murrayfield, but will now have to delay their entry into the tournament.
With lock Louis Deacon joining prop Andrew Sheridan and scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth on the long-term casualty list, Lancaster has no option but to look for fresh blood in certain areas.
Saracens' Owen Farrell is one of the uncapped players expected to play a leading role in the new-look England side. Picture: Getty
Simon Shaw, the grand old man of English rugby at 38, Mike Tindall (33), Nick Easter (33) and Mark Cueto (32) are likely casualties, as are centres Shontayne Hape (31 this month) and Riki Flutey (31), who was in the last EPS squad but missed out on the World Cup.
In addition to replacing the retired and injured players, under the terms of the EPS agreement Lancaster can make a further 10 changes to the World Cup squad of 30, and add two more to make up the new 32-man group. He will also name a 32-man Saxons squad.
Let's consider the likely changes and new faces in each area of the team.
England are flush with options at full-back, with Saracens' Alex Goode and Harlequins' Mike Brown both in prime form. One of them should join a rejuvenated Ben Foden in the squad, with the other in the Saxons. Delon Armitage, in poor form and still suffering on the disciplinary front, is likely to make way. Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples (22) missed the World Cup cut but could now take over from Sale veteran Cueto, while Saracens' David Strettle is also a contender.
Tuilagi is the only one of the four centres who went to the World Cup sure to be named, and he is unlikely to make the opening game. Tindall and Hape are set to be axed, while it remains to be seen whether Lancaster sees Matt Banahan as a centre, wing, or a Test player at all. Saracens' Brad Barritt is probably the gain-line-breaker-in-waiting, Leicester's Billy Twelvetrees (29 points v Wasps on Saturday), and Quins' Jordan Turner-Hall offer options at 12 with Gloucester's Henry Trinder and Harlequins' Matt Hopper the more nimble alternatives at 13.
With Wilkinson gone, and Flood missing the start of the tournament, Lancaster has a tricky call to make. Saracens' 20-year-old Owen Farrell is the talk of the town and sure to be included; he might start at centre if England want a 'second five-eighth' in midfield. Does Lancaster now give Farrell his head at 10? Or turn to his Saracens team-mate Charlie Hodgson, whose distribution skills are still top notch even if his Test career stalled because of defensive concerns. The decision to suspend scrum-half Danny Care was not taken lightly, given that Wigglesworth is out for the season, leaving the back-up to Ben Youngs on the light side. Wasps' Joe Simpson will presumably be retained, and Northampton's consistently effective Lee Dickson would provide an interesting alternative.
Harlequins prop Joe Marler is one of the young players who could step up for England against Scotland in the Six Nations. Photo: Getty
Thompson's retirement leaves hooker Dylan Hartley in prime position to reclaim the starting role. But the back-up is thin. Lee Mears, the third World Cup hooker, is 32, and not getting any bigger. Wasps' Rob Webber was in the Saxons squad last season but chose a bad time to have a line-out wobble against Leicester on Saturday. Harlequins' Joe Gray (23) and Saracens' Jamie George (21) are the coming men, but still wet behind the ears. In the props department, Sheridan may have played his last Test, so there is a loose-head vacancy. Joe Marler's skills around the park are eye-catching for Quins, but does he have the scrummaging grunt for Test rugby? Worcester's Matt Mullan and Gloucester's Nick Wood are alternatives, while tight-head Paul Doran-Jones has nailed down more starts for Northampton than David Wilson has for Bath of late.
The retention of Tom Palmer, 32 but still relatively young in Test terms, would make sense even if Deacon were not ruled out of the whole tournament and Lawes likely to miss the start. Their absence could give chances to Bath's Dave Attwood, who won two caps in 2010 before disciplinary issues stalled his progress, and George Robson, consistently excellent for Harlequins. Leicester's Geoff Parling is another option, while Sale's athletic lock/flanker James Gaskell could also come into the reckoning.
Quins captain Chris Robshaw is the obvious candidate for promotion, after excelling during the pre-World Cup training camp but missing final selection. His versatility - he can play all across the back row - makes him a prime candidate for a place in the match-day 22, if not the starting XV. With James Haskell unavailable during his stint in Japan, and Moody gone, Tom Croft and Tom Wood are the likely starting flankers. Will Lancaster opt for a specialist open-side in his squad? If so, Saracens' Andy Saull and Jamie Gibson of London Irish are the likely lads. The decision of Bristol-born Llanelli Scarlets number eight Ben Morgan to choose his native country over Wales will hasten the end of Easter's international career, and possibly further frustrate Gloucester's Luke Narraway.
Possible England elite squad:
Forwards (18): Hartley, Webber, Gray; Corbisiero, Marler, Stevens, Cole, Doran-Jones; Attwood, Lawes, Palmer, Robson; Croft, Robshaw, Wood, Saull, Morgan.
Backs (14): Foden, Goode; Ashton, Sharples; Banahan, Barritt, Twelvetrees, Tuilagi; Farrell, Flood, Hodgson; Dickson, Simpson, Youngs.
But that's just my assessment. Who would you like to see in Lancaster's new England?
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