If Stuart Lancaster has a reputation as a risk-taker when it comes to selection, it is not a quality he recognises in himself. England's head coach defended his decision to name two uncapped 21-year-olds – the Saracens prop Mako Vunipola and Wasps lock Joe Launchbury – on the bench for tomorrow's meeting with Fiji by arguing they were different propositions to 21-year-olds of previous red-rose generations.
"I haven't picked them because I'm operating some kind of youth policy," Lancaster said yesterday. "They're involved because I think they're ready. The regional academies have been operating hand in hand with the representative age-group teams for some years, but it's only now that we're seeing the likes of Mako and Joe come through. They're a different breed, far in advance of many of their predecessors in terms of their physical and technical development. They're also more robust in their mentality. They understand the reality of what it is to be a professional rugby player."
While Lancaster had few decisions to make regarding his starting line-up once the London Irish centre Jonathan Joseph and the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes withdrew through injury, the rapid rise of Vunipola to full international status is every bit as left-field as Launchbury's success in driving the hard- bitten Saracens forward Mouritz Botha out of the match-day squad. Yet should they both find themselves in the middle of the fray after 10 minutes tomorrow, the coach's heart will not miss a beat.
"I remember John Fletcher [the former Newcastle rugby director now working with the second-string Saxons set-up] saying to me years ago that I should keep an eye on Mako," Lancaster recalled. "He's extremely good in the ball-carrying department and now he's actually lost some weight – he's a mere 120kg [19st] these days – we think he can last a full Test match, which is vitally important.
"As for Joe, he would have been in South Africa with us last summer but for injury. I speak regularly to David Young [the rugby director at Wasps] and he tells me that Launchbury is the first name he puts down on the team sheet, despite his age. He's athletic and has good rugby intelligence. No one can argue that he's a development player. To me, he's the player in form. Mouritz is disappointed not to be involved, but that's the way it is. He knows what he has to do to get back in."
Fiji, travelling without some of their big-name players, have three Premiership regulars in their starting side: the Gloucester back-rower Akapusi Qera and two outsized centres in Sireli Naqelevuki of Exeter and Vereniki Goneva of Leicester. "If you look at their midfield alone, it's clear that they're not on a hiding to nothing," Lancaster commented.
Meanwhile, flanker Steffon Armitage, who plays for Toulon, has been cleared of doping charges by a French Rugby Federation disciplinary panel. He tested positive for morphine following last season's Top 14 final defeat by Toulouse.
England team 15 A Goode (Saracens); 14 C Sharples (Gloucester); 13 M Tuilagi (Leicester); 12 B Barritt (Saracens); 11 U Monye (Harlequins); 10 T Flood (Leicester); 9 D Care (Harlequins); 8 T Waldrom (Leicester); 7 C Robshaw (Harlequins; capt); 6 T Johnson (Exeter); 5 T Palmer (Wasps); 4 G Parling (Leicester); 3 D Cole (Leicester); 2 T Youngs (Leicester); 1 J Marler (Harlequins). Replacements D Paice, D Wilson, M Vunipola, J Launchbury, T Wood, B Youngs, O Farrell, 23 M Brown.Reuse content