Lancaster to 'freshen it up' for must-win Boks match
Corbisiero and Joseph set to start on Saturday as pressure mounts on the England coach
Joe Marler, the Mohican-haired England prop, played all three Tests against the Springboks in South Africa last summer, but his chances of squaring up to them again at Twickenham this weekend are zero.
Marler suffered knee ligament damage during his unhappy entanglement with the Wallabies three days ago and is out of contention for the most important international of the year to date. If there is a silver lining, it is that Stuart Lancaster has no need to drop him.
Alex Corbisiero, the London Irish front-rower who would have been the head coach's preferred choice at the start of this series but for injury problems of his own, played a hard 75 minutes against Leicester on Sunday and is fit for selection.
Lancaster could turn to Mako Vunipola, the newcomer from Saracens, following two encouraging appearances as a second-half replacement, but Springbok scrummagers are not renowned for giving ambitious youngsters a helping hand up the career ladder.
Judging by yesterday's bulletin from the team camp in Surrey, the naturalised Tongan will have to do something very special in training to earn a first start at the highest level.
Changes are unlikely to be restricted to the front row. Tom Wood, the tough-as-old-boots Northampton flanker, was talked up by Lancaster and is a warm favourite to replace Tom Johnson in the blind-side role. Joe Launchbury of Wasps is under consideration for a run-on place at lock – only Lancaster's understandable reluctance to over-egg things in selection puts a question mark against his promotion – while Jonathan Joseph, viewed by the England coaches as a long-term answer at outside centre, also has his chance, having joined his club-mate Corbisiero in proving his fitness in the game at Welford Road.
"We're looking to freshen things up," Lancaster said. "Now Corbisiero and Joseph have games under their belts, we have choices available to us, while Wood's case for inclusion is definitely stronger after making an impact off the bench against the Wallabies.
"Selection will be based on lots of things, one of which is our recognition of the physicality the Springboks bring with them."
As the p-word is as relevant to Wood as it is to any of the man-eaters in the South African pack, it will be surprising indeed if he fails to make the starting XV.
If the tourists are just a little more conciliatory than usual when they take the field at Twickenham, it will be because their ultra-aggressive lock Eben Etzebeth is serving a suspension, potentially of the punitive variety. The giant 21-year-old forward from Cape Town was scheduled to appear before a judicial officer today to answer a charge of gouging the Scotland outside-half Greig Laidlaw during the second half of Saturday's match at Murrayfield. Offences of "making contact with the eye or eye area", to use the formal terminology, carry a minimum ban of three months.
Not that Lancaster spent much of his time yesterday second-guessing what the Boks might do in Etzebeth's absence: the coach had quite enough to concern him with regards to his own team – not least the option-taking part of the operation.
The decision of Chris Robshaw, the captain, and other senior players to reject penalty shots at goal either side of the hour mark in the game against the Wallabies led to fierce criticism from a number of quarters and the subject was discussed long and hard during a review session before training.
"Did we get everything right? In hindsight, there may have been things we could have done differently," the coach admitted. "But it's too simplistic to make this a black-and-white issue. As Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, remarked after the game, these calls are made in real time. There were a number of occasions when we made really good, accurate decisions, but the percentage was not quite high enough: we have to make sure more calls are correct.
"On another day, though, Thomas Waldrom [the England No 8] would have scored from the attacking line-out we called instead of going for goal and Ben Alexander [the Wallaby prop] would have been in the sin bin for entering the maul from the side. Everyone's happy then, aren't they?"
England will not go into this game expecting the unexpected, as they did against the Australians: tactics and strategies may come and go, but the Springboks never play anything but a no-frills, no-mercy style of rugby.
"Playing against the best southern hemisphere teams leaves you in no doubt as to where you stand," Lancaster said. "The Springboks have just put Ireland and Scotland to bed without getting out of third gear, so we know how testing this will be."
Should England lose, with a visit from the masterly All Blacks still to come, much of the optimism generated by last season's Six Nations campaign and the subsequent drawn Test with the Springboks in Port Elizabeth will evaporate.
What is more, Lancaster will expect another broadside from Sir Clive Woodward, the World Cup-winning coach, who had some sharp words to say following the disappointment against the Wallabies.
"Lots of people have opinions, I've come to learn since starting this job," Lancaster said. "It goes with the territory.
"I'm happy for everyone to express a view. I'll just get on with doing what's best for the England team." It was an unusually pointed remark, but then, the coach is in the unusual position of feeling some pressure.
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