Injuries leave Lancaster with plenty to ponder
England coach still unsure about his team for the Six Nations game against Scotland
Suddenly, selection is not quite like falling off a log for the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster. A week shy of the opening Six Nations match of the season – an awkward Calcutta Cup encounter with Scotland, who have gone mighty close to winning each of their last four games against their nearest and dearest without quite finding a way across the line – the red-rose boss admitted yesterday that there was more than one personnel decision to be made.
Prior to this week's training camp in Leeds, where a good 6,000 spectators watched yesterday's open session at Headingley, the general assumption was that Lancaster had only one big call on his agenda: whether to stick with Tom Youngs, the new hooker from Leicester who worked himself up to international speed so quickly during the autumn Test series, or recall the vastly more experienced Dylan Hartley, who had started the campaign as England's undisputed first choice but had picked up an injury at the wrong time.
The contest between the two No 2s is extremely hot, as Lancaster acknowledged during a break in proceedings in Yorkshire. But the coach also volunteered the information that the deals at full-back, scrum-half and loose-head prop were far from sealed. Much will depend on how the contenders shape up in Monday's "unit session" at the team base in Surrey.
The full-back position is intriguing. Lancaster has yet to decide whether to attend tomorrow's Saracens-Cardiff Blues match, where Alex Goode, the regular Test choice during the four recent outings against southern hemisphere tourists, resumes for the home side after weeks of shoulder trouble. "Whether or not I watch the game live, I'll certainly catch it one way or another," he said. "The whole point of us releasing Alex back to Saracens this weekend is to see how he goes in a competitive fixture."
If Goode fails to do enough in the 50 minutes or so he is expected to play, either Mike Brown of Harlequins or Ben Foden of Northampton will wear the No 15 shirt against the Scots. The one who misses out will probably find himself on the left wing, although another Saracens back, the specialist wide man David Strettle, is said by the England coaches to be in very decent nick.
Like the propping contest between Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola, the scrum-half issue is a straight shoot-out: this time between Ben Youngs of Leicester, the incumbent, and Danny Care of Quins, who feels he is mighty close to regaining his starting place. On balance, Youngs has the advantage – he did, after all, play the lion's share of the momentous game against New Zealand at the start of last month – but Care is on his case.
"I believe I've improved my all-round game over the last year and I think I'm playing well," he said. "I'd love to be in for Scotland, who will come to London with some big forwards and bring a lot of physicality with them. They don't really like us very much, do they? That's what makes this fixture something to enjoy."
With Manu Tuilagi back in Leicester for further treatment on his troublesome ankle, there was no clear indication yesterday of the amount of midfield surgery Lancaster might perform to cover for his absence, which is growing likelier by the hour. Two other first-choice players, the Northampton flanker Tom Wood and the Gloucester No 8 Ben Morgan, also sat out the Headingley session, but neither is in danger of missing the Calcutta Cup date.
Meanwhile, Wales have called the 6ft 7in, 19 stone Harlequins lock Olly Kohn – as outsized as he is uncapped – into their Six Nations squad.
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