Stuart Lancaster has not quite completed the switch from master of mystery to paragon of predictability in the space of a calendar year – the national coach pulled a rabbit from his hat today by promoting the Northampton flanker Calum Clark to the red-rose squad for the forthcoming Six Nations – but he is far more settled in his view of things now than he was this time last season. Hell, he is not even keeping people guessing about the identity of the England skipper.
"I'll be attending next week's Six Nations launch with the captain and you shouldn't expect any surprises," said the Cumbrian, by way of confirming that the Harlequins captain Chris Robshaw will continue in the role despite ferocious criticism of his leadership skills in the middle stages of the autumn series at Twickenham. "Of course, he'll have to survive our pre-tournament training camp up here in Leeds," Lancaster added mischievously, knowing full well, barring accidents, his favourite general will pass that little test with flying colours.
For all Lancaster's additions and adjustments to the 33-man senior party – most of them falling into the category of what Basil Fawlty would have called the "bleedin' obvious" – there will be few changes, if any, to the starting line-up when England face Scotland on Calcutta Cup day at Twickenham early next month.
The main injury concerns surround the loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero, who is having no end of hassle with a degenerative knee condition, and the full-back Alex Goode, who has shoulder trouble, but the coach believes both will be fit to build on the success of their last outing, against the All Blacks a little over five weeks ago.
"It's not a matter of us owing a debt of honour to the people who played in that victory: if you make selection predictable, you get complacency among those in the team and frustration among those outside it," commented Lancaster, speaking at the beautifully appointed West Park Leeds club, which he has turned into England's second home.
"At some point during the training camp the players will be going hard at each other, 15 against 15, and it may be that we as coaches will look at someone performing particularly well and say: 'Hey, you know what...?' But it is also the case that a team needs consistency in selection," he added. In other words, something very dramatic will have to happen for someone to upset the existing applecart.
As expected, Lancaster called up the Gloucester midfielders Freddie Burns and Billy Twelvetrees, the Saracens prop Mako Vunipola, the Leicester hooker Tom Youngs and the Wasps lock Joe Launchbury.
Two more familiar international hands, the Saracens wing David Strettle and the Wasps back-rower James Haskell, were also given places in the elite squad – Strettle at the expense of Charlie Sharples, the Gloucester player who was pressed into service out of position on the left wing against Australia last November and so can feel justifiably aggrieved.
Clark's sudden return to the group was the one eyebrow-raiser, and not just because he spent much of last year under suspension after a grisly assault on the Leicester hooker Rob Hawkins during the Anglo-Welsh Cup final. The main talking point was Lancaster's decision to drop two locks, Mouritz Botha and Tom Palmer, to make way for a career back-rower who has spent precious little time in the boilerhouse of the second row, either at Premiership or representative level.
"On the face of it, we might look a bit light in the lock department with just Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, but Palmer is struggling with a calf injury and anyway, we feel Calum has the physical equipment to double up in that area," Lancaster said. "I've been coaching him since he was 14 and probably know him better than most. I know what he offers in terms of toughness, durability and versatility.
"I was disappointed at what happened last year [when Clark left Hawkins nursing a serious arm injury] but he's never felt anything but remorse over what he did and watching him closely in recent weeks, I think he's been successful in harnessing his competitive nature. He was given a hard lesson to learn, and he has learnt it."
In a sense, the most intriguing developments were in the second-tier Saxons squad, which features some of the most exciting talent in the country: notably the free-scoring Wasps wing Christian Wade and the outstanding young Worcester open-side flanker Matt Kvesic, both of whom pressed for inclusion in the senior party and can be expected to stake very strong claims for promotion over the remainder of the campaign. Lancaster spent much of today stressing the need for "players who can make a difference when the game is at stalemate" and believes those two have what it takes.
As, perhaps, does Billy Vunipola, the 20-year-old Wasps No 8 and brother of Mako who was named alongside Kvesic and the increasingly effective Saracens flanker Will Fraser on a strong-looking Saxons back-row roster led by the demoted Northampton forward Phil Dowson, whose dropping from the senior squad pained the coach beyond words. ("That was a difficult conversation: he was the glue who held the team together last year and is a player I've always been able to trust," Lancaster reflected).
Vunipola will train with the senior squad in the coming weeks as cover for the Lions flanker Tom Croft, who is still feeling his way after recovering from a long-term neck injury.
Red-Rose battlegrounds: Fight for Six Nations places
Perhaps the most competitive position of all now that Dylan Hartley, the Northampton captain, is at full throttle after missing the autumn series through injury. In his absence, Tom Youngs of Leicester made rapid progress in every department bar the crucial discipline of line-out marksmanship. Hartley is the senior player and wants his place back, but Lancaster openly describes Youngs as a "serious threat".
Owen Farrell is the incumbent, but the newcomer Freddie Burns showed on his debut against the All Blacks that he is the more capable attacking No 10 when it comes to playing in opposition faces. With Toby Flood back in the mix after injury, England have a wider range of options than at any point in recent times – three players of substance, very different in style.
Assuming Alex Goode recovers from injury to play at full-back, the No 11 shirt will be the subject of a three-way scrap between two converted No 15s, Mike Brown and Ben Foden, and the recalled specialist David Strettle. Brown, a reluctant wing, did himself proud in the position against New Zealand last time out and starts as favourite. If Goode fails to make it, all bets are off.
Lancaster pleased his 'best signing' Fourie can stay in UK
England head coach Stuart Lancaster has expressed his relief that Hendre Fourie can stay in the United Kingdom after fears he could be deported.
The South Africa-born flanker had been told he had to leave the country, despite winning eight caps for England, after his contract was cancelled by his club Sale following a shoulder injury that forced him to retire.
Immigration officials told the 33-year-old Fourie on Tuesday that he can stay in the UK while they consider what steps to take.
Lancaster said: "I'm pleased that some flexibility is going to be shown. I spoke to him only last week – he was a player I signed for Leeds from Rotherham and he was outstanding, he was the best signing I made.
"It's massively disappointing he has lost his chance to further his club and international career."
Fourie, whose 18-month-old son Hendro was born in England, has been in the country for eight years. A UK Border Agency spokesman said: "We have not curtailed Mr Fourie's visa at this time and he is not required to leave the UK."
C Clark (Northampton) 23/0
A Corbisiero (London Irish) 24/18
D Cole (Leicester) 25/35
T Croft (Leicester) 27/36
D Hartley (Northampton) 26/42
J Haskell (Wasps) 27/45
T Johnson (Exeter) 30/5
J Launchbury (Wasps) 21/4
C Lawes (Northampton) 23/15
J Marler (Harlequins) 22/5
B Morgan (Gloucester) 23/9
G Parling (Leicester) 29/12
C Robshaw (Harlequins) 26/12
M Vunipola (Saracens) 21/4
T Waldrom (Leicester) 29/4
D Wilson (Bath) 27/22
T Wood (Northampton) 26/13
T Youngs (Leicester) 25/4
C Ashton (Saracens) 25/29
B Barritt (Saracens) 26/11
M Brown (Harlequins) 27/11
F Burns (Gloucester) 22/1
D Care (Harlequins) 26/37
L Dickson (Northampton) 27/7
O Farrell (Saracens) 21/12
T Flood (Leicester) 27/53
B Foden (Northampton) 27/30
A Goode (Saracens) 24/6
J Joseph (London Irish) 21/4
D Strettle (Saracens) 29/12
M Tuilagi (Leicester) 21/17
B Twelvetrees (Gloucs) 24/0
B Youngs (Leicester) 23/28