Marland Yarde, a distinctive figure if ever there was one, reminded us of his existence last weekend, making a telling contribution from the bench as London Irish pushed Leicester, the Premiership champions, every millimetre of the way at the Madejski Stadium. Tomorrow it is the turn of Manu Tuilagi – a player so recognisable he reduces Yarde to a state of forlorn anonymity. Ben Foden is also on the road back from injury, while Alex Corbisiero should be in a position to resume his much-interrupted career by the middle of next month. Suddenly, here comes everybody.
The first clear sighting of a World Cup on the horizon generally signals an outbreak of rugby’s Lazarus Syndrome. It is a mere couple of months since carnage on the orthopaedic front forced Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, to name two elite squads rather than one: the first for the Six Nations, the second to cover the summer Test series in New Zealand.
Lancaster found himself bereft of wings, short of centres and one injury away from a crisis at tight-head prop. Things are still a little stretched in the latter department, not least because that injury (to Dan Cole) duly occurred, but in every other respect he will soon have more tempting options than a rich kid in a sweetshop.
Most of the contenders for the Webb Ellis Trophy have their squads pretty much in place: the All Blacks, the Wallabies, the Irish, the Welsh. They will spend the next 12 months tinkering around with the fine detail rather than taking major decisions on selectorial policy. The Springboks may have playing numbers on a red rose scale, but they also have continuity behind them. Only France, a mystery to us all, are in the same state of flux as England.
As things stand, Lancaster has around 50 players – some would argue nearer 60 – disputing 30 World Cup places. Of those, 15 are currently safe bets to make the cut: Mike Brown, Owen Farrell, Danny Care, Yarde and Tuilagi outside the scrum; Cole, Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley, Tom Youngs, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and the Vunipola brothers up front.
If the Leicester flanker Tom Croft proves to be as good after long-term injury as he was before it, he can probably be added to the list. Corbisiero is in the same category, although his return will open up a Pandora’s box of front-row problems. Either way, we are left with an awful lot of people chasing precious few vacancies.
Luther Burrell, the Northampton centre who has taken so readily to international rugby since winning his first cap in France at the start of last month, is in a secondary group of “highly likelies”, along with Billy Twelvetrees, his fellow midfielder, and Ben Morgan, who has been playing second fiddle to Billy Vunipola at No 8 but now has an opportunity to nail down his candidacy in the injury-enforced absence of the young Saracen. “With Manu coming back, the competition is going to be brilliant,” Burrell said this week. “He’s a fantastic player – I’ve watched him perform wonders for England in recent years – so all I can do is keep my foot in the door, keep working and keep progressing. I hope the pressure will push me to stay on top of my game and that in the long run the fact that I can play in both centre positions will help my cause.”
That positional flexibility may well prove Burrell’s trump card. The question is whether a handful of much bigger names – players with far more international know-how, including Lions experience – can trump their rivals in the same way. Chris Ashton, the high-profile Saracens wing, must now be considered an outsider. The same goes for figures as well known as Foden, the Northampton full-back, and as influential as Geoff Parling of Leicester, a Lions Test lock as recently as last summer. How the mighty have fallen.
England have gone from famine to feast in the space of a few months, with previously unconsidered youngsters Jack Nowell of Exeter, Jonny May of Gloucester and Anthony Watson of Bath making waves in the Premiership and, in the case of the first two, setting down roots at Test level.
The uncapped Watson’s ability to play full-back as well as wing could give him a significant advantage in the World Cup reckoning and if Stuart Lancaster is looking for further multi-taskers, he may find himself balancing the contrasting claims of Alex Goode and Mathew Tait, both of whom can function effectively away from the No 15 role.
Lancaster is likely to pick five specialist back-three players and two outside centres – one of whom will, in a perfect world, be able to operate on the wing. Might Manu Tuilagi turn out to be that man? Might Jonathan Joseph of Bath rediscover the best of himself in time to press a case? At the last count, there were as many as 16 live contenders for seven slots, all but two of them, Watson and the Gloucester midfielder Henry Trinder, full internationals.
Things are no less complicated here. Danny Care’s recent performances at scrum-half, flawed in the game management department but undeniably inspired elsewhere, make him the stand-out candidate at No 9, but none of his three closest challengers – Lee Dickson, Richard Wigglesworth and Ben Youngs – can afford to put a penny of their savings on making the World Cup squad. That conflict is still to be fought out. The same goes for the George Ford-Freddie Burns scrap at No 10.
Yet for many, the most interesting contest will unfold one position further out, at inside centre. Billy Twelvetrees is the man in possession and he has a broader range of relevant gifts than any of his rivals. But some very loud voices in the rugby chattersphere are firmly in the “anti” camp, many of them broadcasting on BT Sport, and even if Lancaster keeps Luther Burrell in the outside centre role, the Gloucester man will have to move up another gear to hold off the likes of Brad Barritt, Kyle Eastmond, the much talked-about Exeter youngster Henry Slade and – just possibly, according to some – the rugby league convert Sam Burgess, although it is on the outlandish side of bizarre to talk him up as a World Cup candidate a full six months before his first training session in rugby union.
You think this is easier – that things are freeing up as we leave the piano-players behind and concern ourselves with the pug-faced piano-shifters up front? Think again.
One or two highly significant individuals are going to be bitterly disappointed when Lancaster makes the call in this area. In six of the seven World Cups to date, England went with four props rather than five (the exception being Clive Woodward’s selection in 1999). If Lancaster sticks with custom and practice, the rivalry in that one position will be intense.
As there are three outstanding loose-head specialists currently plying their trade in the red rose game – Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola are the ones currently on show, with the supremely intelligent Alex Corbisiero preparing to rejoin the throng – someone is going to fall very heavily indeed. Unless, of course, one of them is given game time on the tight-head side of the scrum, a move that would put a blowtorch under the ample rear end of David Wilson, the Bath prop who performed so heroically against Ireland last weekend.
The hooking position is more clearly defined, with Dylan Hartley and Tom Youngs a long way ahead of the rest. A third specialist will be needed, however, and it will be fascinating to see if Jamie George of Saracens or Luke Cowan-Dickie of Exeter (frequently spoken of in glowing terms by the England forwards coach Graham Rowntree) can make up ground on the Bath forward Rob Webber.
England could go with only three locks, and as Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes are as good a partnership as any in the world and therefore cast-iron certainties, the other second-rows are not so much squeezed as asphyxiated. Can Geoff Parling of Leicester bring his rugby intelligence to bear in finding a way past the ultra-substantial Bath forward Dave Attwood? He has his work cut out, for sure
A long last, some clarity. Chris Robshaw, the captain, and Tom Wood, his senior lieutenant, can count on selection, as can Billy Vunipola. Who could possibly argue otherwise? It is equally hard to see Tom Croft’s candidacy being rejected if the Lions blind-side flanker returns at full tilt from his latest season-wrecking injury. Which should leave two spots, with the Gloucester No 8 Ben Morgan an even-money favourite to claim one of them, despite the rapid strides made by Sam Dickinson of Northampton and Dave Ewers of Exeter. The last spot? Matt Kvesic, Tom Johnson, Luke Wallace, Will Fraser… Let battle commence.