George Ford set for England promotion but Stuart Lancaster battles with problems up front
George Ford will be the talk of the town if, as widely assumed, he replaces the France-bound Toby Flood in a revamped England squad this afternoon, but the 20-year-old Bath outside-half's promotion has not been at the top of the red-rose hierarchy's agenda in recent days. Stuart Lancaster and his lieutenants are far more concerned with issues up front, where injuries to important players are making life very complicated indeed.
It has been clear for some weeks that two members of the Lions tight five in Australia last summer, the Northampton loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero and the Leicester lock Geoff Parling, will miss the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, although both are expected to be fit for the three-Test tour of New Zealand in June and will therefore hold their places in the elite squad. What Lancaster, the head coach, did not anticipate was the calf injury suffered by the Bath tight-head prop David Wilson in a two-bit training game before Christmas.
According to club sources, Wilson will not be fit for another four weeks and is not a realistic candidate for duty against France in Paris on 1 February. This is the last thing Lancaster needs to hear, for even though Dan Cole of Leicester is bearing up under the strain of constant big-time rugby, the cupboard in the No 3 department is alarmingly Old Mother Hubbardish. The tight-head specialists in the second-string Saxons party, also due an overhaul, are Henry Thomas of Sale and Paul Doran-Jones of Harlequins. Neither are currently first-choice players at Premiership level.
The notion of England travelling to the French capital with an undercooked youngster like Thomas on the bench has a nightmarish quality all of its own. For one thing, the battle-hardened Cole could do himself a mischief in the opening minutes, in which case the Tricolores would seriously fancy their chances at the set-piece; for another, the latest changes to the scrum protocols, suddenly introduced by the International Rugby Board with its usual impeccable sense of timing, will make that crucial phase of the game even more significant than usual. Stade de France will not be a place for kids.
Things are brighter in the second row, but Parling's absence leaves England light in terms of line-out management. Lancaster will not only be praying that his current first-choice pairing of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes survive the next two weekends of European club rugby, but will also clasp his hands together in respect of the heavyweight Bath lock Dave Attwood. Another engine room injury now would leave the national team a long way up the creek with no obvious sign of a paddle.
The announcement will be a complicated affair: Lancaster plans to name a 33-man elite squad to cover the rest of the season, together with new Saxons and Under-20s parties of 32 players apiece, plus – wait for it – a 35-strong squad drawn together with the Six Nations specifically in mind. To all intents and purposes, this will be the elite group shorn of its injured personnel and fleshed out with reinforcements from lower down the pecking order. Is that clear? Excellent.
With seven senior players off-limits for one orthopaedic reason or another – Corbisiero and Parling; the Leicester pair of Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft; the wings Marland Yarde and Christian Wade of London Irish and Wasps respectively; and, for the moment at least, the Northampton full-back Ben Foden – the coaches have an opportunity to play a bold card or two. Ford, benefiting from a long run of starts at Bath and playing with ever-increasing authority, is the obvious man to fill any vacancy at No 10 while Luther Burrell, the powerful Northampton midfielder, has been of interest to Lancaster for some while and can expect to play a part in the Six Nations. But leaving them to one side, there is scope for invention.
Anthony Watson, whose performance on the wing for Bath at Leicester four days ago was an eyebrow-raiser even for those who thought they had seen it all, is very much on the England radar and there will have been a good deal of discussion about Henry Trinder, the outside centre from Gloucester. It would also be nice to think that Mathew Tait, used and abused by more than one England coach since his international debut in 2005, will be given another chance at the top level as reward for some excellent performances at full-back – not least at the back end of last season as Leicester closed in on the Premiership title.
Three bright sparks to light up England
George Ford (outside-half, Bath)
The son of the former England defence coach Mike Ford has thrived at The Rec since switching from Leicester. A genuine attacking threat whose game management understanding is developing fast.
Luther Burrell (centre, Northampton)
Strong on the carry and destructive in the tackle. England need a multi-skilled playmaker at inside centre, but the uncapped man looks a decent bet at No 13.
Anthony Watson (full-back/wing, Bath)
If defenders don't like pace, they will soon hate the sight of the ultra-rapid teenager. England must decide whether to hold him back in age-group rugby or fast-track him now.
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