The parallels are freakish: England will travel to South Africa in June for a five-match tour during which they will attempt to lay solid foundations for an assault on the world title a little over three years hence – just as they did in 2000. And we all know what happened then. As every coach involved in that previous trip, from Sir Clive Woodward and Andy Robinson to Brian Ashton and Phil Larder, has subsequently asserted, it was the Springbok Experience that made it all possible.
Just as Woodward did a dozen summers ago, Stuart Lancaster, right, will travel with a 42-man party, give or take a spare hooker and an extra midfielder, and when he declares his hand this afternoon he is likely to draw virtually all his players from the two squads, senior Six Nations and second-string Saxons, that served him well enough in the 11 weeks after Christmas. This too has echoes of 2000: on that tour, the Test team had a familiar look to it while the midweek side showcased its share of ambitious wannabes.
Continuing orthopaedic hassles will keep the influential Northampton back-rower Tom Wood off the plane, and the coach could have done without the with-drawal of Tom Croft, his prime line-out operator, and the enforced unavailability of the aggressive Calum Clark. Croft suffered a neck injury in Leicester's compelling Premiership victory over Harlequins last month while Clark is serving a ban for busting an opponent's elbow.
James Haskell, currently playing Super 15 rugby in Dunedin, is available to minimise the back-row disruption, thanks to the Rugby Football Union's pragmatic approach to its own "no foreign-based players" policy, but there is still some concern over the shortage of genuinely quick flankers. Andy Saull of Saracens might have been included, but he too is crocked. Jamie Gibson of London Irish? He seems the best bet, under the circumstances.
There are other problem positions, most notably hooker – hence the discussions over whether to take the Leicester youngster Tom Youngs, despite his inexperience at Premiership level – and wing. Lancaster has a range of options out wide, but none of them is bankable. Should he revert to Matt Banahan of Bath, or throw a top-flight newcomer like Christian Wade of Wasps into the mix? But to others the lightning-quick Jonny May of Gloucester looks best suited to this tour.
Meanwhile, the Wales assistant coach and noted training-ground workaholic Shaun Edwards has agreed another of his part-time deals with an English club – London Irish. He will spend a day a week, plus the odd "day off", working with the Exiles.
- More about:
- Guinness Premiership
- Harlequin FC
- Harlequins (rugby)
- Mark Tucker
- Rugby Union
- Six Nations Rugby