Six Nations call-ups for Burns and Youngs while Flood cleared to play
Evolution not further revolution in Lancaster's England as citing for outside-half not upheld
Stuart Lancaster will not strip the England squad bare today by making a full team's worth of changes to the elite roster, as he did in his first act as national coach a year ago. It is a sure sign of the progress made under the Cumbrian's stewardship, which has been an object lesson in quiet assurance, that he can happily approach the forthcoming Six Nations jamboree with a familiar party, most of whom are young enough to have legitimate designs on the home-town World Cup in 2015.
There will be tinkerings, though. The formal promotions of three recently-capped players – the Gloucester outside-half Freddie Burns, the Leicester hooker Tom Youngs and the Wasps lock Joe Launchbury – are done deals, and with current front-row replacement regulations allowing for a fifth prop, the ancient-looking Saracens youngster Mako Vunipola has every chance of staying involved following a promising contribution in the autumn internationals.
Lancaster received welcome news last night when Toby Flood, his senior outside-half, was cleared of inflicting an illegal "tip-tackle" on his opposite number Andy Goode while helping Leicester to a narrow win at Worcester last Friday. The citing, made by match commissioner Shaun Gallagher, was not upheld by a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel, so Flood is available for the Tigers' big Heineken Cup match with Ospreys this weekend.
Other adjustments to the Six Nations' squad, by no means out of the question, will be more delicate. Lancaster is known to like the look of a second Gloucester midfielder in Billy Twelvetrees, who could conceivably turn out to be the attacking inside-centre England have craved since the retirement of Will Greenwood the best part of a decade ago. But if, as seems certain, the coach adds Burns to his existing outside-half resources, he might have to jettison both Anthony Allen of Leicester and Jordan Turner-Hall of Harlequins to create space for the new boy. Either that, or leave himself short of bodies in the back three.
And the back three is an issue. Four members of the squad Lancaster named last summer – Mike Brown, Ben Foden, Alex Goode and Chris Ashton – are selections of the no-brainer variety, but three of them are full-backs and there is no specialist left wing in sight. As left wing is a very different position from right wing in technical terms, as Charlie Sharples of Gloucester would no doubt confirm following appearances in both roles during the autumn, the England management have some thinking to do.
There has been plenty of support for the unfeasibly rapid Christian Wade of Wasps just lately, but like Ashton and Sharples, he is a right wing by instinct. Lancaster should stick with Sharples on the basis that he is as quick as most and deserves a chance to re-state his case after spending a difficult afternoon out of position against the Wallabies. Alternatively, he could turn to the experienced David Strettle of Saracens, who at least feels at home in the No 11 shirt.
Up front, Launchbury's super-fast rise to prominence appears to leave another Sarries man, the naturalised South African workhorse Mouritz Botha, contesting a second-row position with Tom Palmer, who partners the newcomer at Wasps. Palmer is no spring chicken and has spent much of his career being written off by all and sundry. He is, however, a specialist middle jumper who knows what it is to run a line-out. Geoff Parling may be the kingpin in that department these days, but you can't have too much of a good thing.
Which leaves the phalanx of back-rowers, seven strong as things stand and unlikely to change dramatically. The Leicester flanker Tom Croft, just back from long-term injury, is confidently expected to hold his place, even though he is unlikely to be considered for Six Nations selection until the back end of the tournament. This puts a heap of pressure on the ever-combative Phil Dowson of Northampton, who may lose out to the bigger, marginally more versatile James Haskell of Wasps. Haskell has performed the demanding open-side role at Test level – indeed, he did it with some success at the last World Cup – and England are in obvious need of back-up to Chris Robshaw in the breakaway department.
If Lancaster was still in 2012 mode, he would probably have plumped for the Worcester youngster Matt Kvesic, whom he has frequently mentioned in dispatches. Kvesic's performance in last week's Premiership match with Leicester was exceptional – ask Croft and Thomas Waldrom, the red-rose forwards who found themselves on the wrong end of it – and while he is a rank outside for this selection, a place on the summer tour of Argentina might be his for the taking.
Squad issues: Lancaster's options
Hot favourites to join squad
Freddie Burns (Gloucester)
His Test career is just 17 minutes old, but his contribution against New Zealand last month were hugely promising. The most exciting No 10 around.
Tom Youngs (Leicester)
Wonky line-out throwing aside, the hooker made the most of the opportunity created by Dylan Hartley's injury. A welcome newcomer in a problem position.
Joe Launchbury (Wasps)
Capped during the autumn, he is already being talked of as a Lions tourist this summer. One of the England coaching team's most inspired investments.
Could be called up
Christian Wade (Wasps)
A tourist in South Africa last summer, the diminutive speedster has the happy knack of scoring tries that border on the unscoreable. Defensively flakey, however.
Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester)
An inside centre with a full skill-set, he trained with England during the autumn and is ready to take things to the next level.
Matt Kvesic (Worcester)
One of those players coaches talk about between themselves. Given England's reluctance to pick Steffon Armitage from abroad, the breakaway could emerge very quickly.
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