Six Nations 2014: Stuart Lancaster admits World Cup selection issues await
England coach admits 'we'll be making some very tight decisions'
Unless something odd occurs between now and the big Six Nations meeting with Ireland at Twickenham in nine days' time, England will be unchanged for the third successive game – a feat of continuity not achieved since the 2000 tournament, when Clive Woodward was just beginning to piece together the side that would win the World Cup.
The players who started the recent contests against France and Scotland are spending this week in pampered isolation at St George's Park, the national football centre in Staffordshire. To all intents and purposes, their names are already on the team sheet.
This unusual level of selectorial consistency has been driven by injuries to the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Marland Yarde and Ben Foden, all of whom will be back in action at club level over the next fortnight but are unlikely to feature in this tournament. Yet if the situation has made Stuart Lancaster's job simpler than it might have been as far as this competition is concerned, the head coach knows it has muddied the waters ahead of next year's global gathering on home soil.
Lancaster is already weighing his options for the attempt to reclaim the Webb Ellis Trophy – "I went through it as a hypothetical exercise not so long ago," he said – and while he has not yet decided on the names, he is pretty sure of the numbers. His 30-man squad will, under the current thinking, consist of 16 forwards and 14 backs, with hard squeezes in a number of positions: wing, centre and outside-half among them.
For example, there will probably be only five specialist back three players, with the possible addition of a utility back if Lancaster can find a centre with the capacity to double up as a wing – a multi-tasking role that might suit Tuilagi. With the man from Leicester Tigers in the mix alongside Yarde, Foden, Christian Wade, Anthony Watson, Chris Ashton, Alex Goode and the existing unit of Mike Brown, Jack Nowell and Jonny May, the fall-out is certain to be very heavy indeed.
"The reality is that we'll be making some very tight decisions," the coach acknowledged. "I've been looking quite carefully at the composition of squads at previous World Cups, at how coaches from various countries have approached the problem.I have an idea of a core group of 35-40 players in mind and I expect that to stay the same, but even though I generally have an ideal starting team in my head, that tends to change and will continue to do so. Things have changed even over the first two rounds of Six Nations matches. I have a spreadsheet on the subject, and it's an evolving spreadsheet."
One of the chief points of interest will be the contest for the outside-half positions, which will grow more intense the moment the Gloucester No 10 Freddie Burns rediscovers some prime form. Burns has struggled behind a beaten pack for much of the season, but Lancaster still sees him as a live contender for the principal playmaking role, even though George Ford of Bath has emerged as the immediate challenger to Owen Farrell of Saracens.
"I had a long conversation with Freddie last week and told him that we trust him," the coach said. "When he comes into England camp, he does so with a clean slate. He is judged on the way he trains. We certainly haven't lost faith in him. We know he's a good player."
Wales have lost a good player of their own, Scott Williams, for the remainder of the tournament. The Scarlets centre suffered a shoulder injury during the heavy defeat in Ireland last weekend.
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