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 everything else possible.
Just as Woodward did a dozen summers ago, Stuart Lancaster 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, but as Lancaster has never been in a position to pick him anyway – Wood broke down before the Six Nations – there is no obvious reason to lose sleep over the news. The coach could, however, 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 time on the sidelines 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 their 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 are bankable. Should he revert to Matt Banahan of Bath, despite the excellent arguments the player has mounted against his own selection in recent months, or throw a top-flight newcomer like Christian Wade of Wasps into the mix? All things considered, the lightning-quick Jonny May of Gloucester would be best suited to this tour.
More than anything, Lancaster is hoping that the four best clubs sides in the country – Harlequins, Leicester, Saracens and Northampton – negotiate the knock-out phase of the Premiership campaign without losing England squad members to injury. As many as 30 of the tour party could be drawn from this quartet: that leaves the selectors deep in hostage-to-fortune territory.
One of that number is likely to be the troubled Quins scrum-half Danny Care, ditched from the England squad after drink-related run-ins with the police. Care said yesterday that he was now "off the booze" and added: "I don't think I realised how much I was affected by the toe injury that kept me out of the World Cup. My sports psychologist thinks frustration built up, my focus slipped and I took my eye of what was required to be England's No 9."
Meanwhile, the Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards has agreed another of his part-time deals with an English club – London Irish, on this occasion. Edwards is a noted workaholic who would, were it humanly possible, spend eight days a week on the training field, and he has had a little too much time on his hands since ending his successful association with Wasps after last year's World Cup.
This new arrangement, under which Edwards will spend a day a week, plus the odd "day off", working with the Exiles, has been sanctioned by the Welsh Rugby Union. "It will keep Shaun at the cutting edge of the game at domestic level," said a spokesman for the governing body.
Tour guide: Shocks squad could throw up
Four arrests in a few weeks sent the Harlequins scrum-half to the back of the England queue, and head coach Stuart Lancaster told him to address his drinking habits or he would remain off-limits. Now back to something like his best.
The back-rower consciously ruled himself out by agreeing to play his club rugby in Japan and then New Zealand. But needs must. Injuries to Tom Wood and Tom Croft present him with an unexpected chance to forget World Cup miseries.
Lancaster indicated weeks ago that the Saracens full-back would get a chance in South Africa. Hopefully he will stay true to his word, for Goode has been among the most intelligent, innovative Englishmen for three seasons now.
The uncapped Quins prop is, say the coaching staff, "dying to get involved". Close to a breakthrough in the Six Nations, the belligerent loosehead should relish mixing it with the he-man scrummagers in Springbok country.
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