The selection issues, from hooker to wing, facing England coach Stuart Lancaster

As England’s hopefuls prepare for a challenging series of autumn internationals, Chris Hewett considers the issues Lancaster and his coaches will need to address

One last furious 80 minutes of club rugby, and then into camp: after this weekend's round of Premiership contests, the 32 contenders for England places against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and the barely beatable All Blacks of New Zealand will gather at the new National Football Centre in Burton-on-Trent for a week of heavy preparation.

For some – Dan Cole and Dylan Hartley, Chris Ashton and Chris Robshaw – the road ahead is clear. For a significant majority, there are selection battles around every corner.

"We're beginning to move towards the point we have to reach – the point where we have proper competition for every position in the side," said Andy Farrell, one quarter of the red-rose coaching staff, this week. "Rugby is a joined-up game and we want to reflect that in our performances this autumn."

That will demand some joined-up thinking in selection, particularly in the midfield area. Stuart Lancaster, the strategist-in-chief, believes he has a clear idea of where he can take the team.

Full-back

A straight race, this one. Mike Brown of Harlequins, aggression made flesh in possession and an outstanding defender when the other lot have the ball, travelled to South Africa last June as the first choice, the coaches having decided that Ben Foden's future lay on the left wing. But Brown was injured in Johannesburg and this allowed Alex Goode of Saracens to catch the eye in Port Elizabeth a week later.

Goode's rugby is the stuff of subtlety: sophisticated angles, deft body positioning, a skill set woven from the smoothest silk. Brown is a proven try-poacher, but if Lancaster is serious about playing the majestically unsubtle Manu Tuilagi of Leicester at inside centre – and there are very good reasons why he shouldn't be – England will need the Saracen's creative spark.

Wings

Chris Ashton's place on the right wing is secure: the only way he will not wear the No 14 shirt over the next few weeks is if Lancaster promotes the Gloucester back Charlie Sharples to the starting line-up and asks the uniquely predatatory rugby league refugee to switch flanks, as Martin Johnson once asked Mark Cueto to accommodate Ashton. Sharples is good enough to make a name for himself in an England shirt, but he has developed a knack of being injured at the wrong time.

Ugo Monye's return to the elite squad makes life easy for the coaches: a Test Lion in South Africa three years ago – a tour on which he showed the mental and emotional strength to look personal humiliation in the eye and stare it down – he offers a ready-made solution to the problem caused by Foden's orthopaedic issues.

As the notion of Tuilagi moving out wide has been effectively rubbished by the attacking skills coach, Mike Catt – "Why stick a threat like him on the wing and risk him not seeing the ball?" he asked this week – the Harlequin has an excellent chance of facing Fiji.

Centres

Will this nightmare never end? Every England coach since Clive Woodward has struggled to settle on a midfield combination that isn't either ponderous to the point of Jurassicity (the leaden-footed Shontayne Hape-Mike Tindall axis), flakier than a bowl of muesli (Shane Geraghty-Dan Hipkiss) or hopelessly lopsided (Jamie Noon-Mathew Tait). A player as good as Tait would have been a world-beater in the right environment, but it was his sorry lot to be messed around by selectors who should have known better.

Leaving aside the outside-half Toby Flood, routinely described by the former England coach Brian Ashton as "the best inside centre in the country", the squad is without a No 12 of serious class. Frustratingly, there is such an operator outside the squad in the shape of Billy Twelvetrees: as the Gloucester midfielder has a top-notch passing game, kicks the leather off the ball and is big enough to force his way through the crunch, the phrase "what's not to like?" springs to mind. One day. Maybe.

So what happens? Jonathan Joseph of London Irish looks like a Test-class No 13 in the making, but if he plays, Tuilagi must move one of two ways – outside to the wing, or inside to No 12, where the unflashy but reassuringly dependable Brad Barritt stands in his way.

The human bowling ball is undeniably a potent attacking force and no one in his right mind would want to be tackled by him, but the great 12s have more to their games than muscle and bone in unusually dense mass. If the South African-born Leicester man is an asset, he is also a problem.

Outside-half

The aforementioned Flood appears to be ahead of the game: the Leicester playmaker's excellent performance in the important Heineken Cup victory over Ospreys six days ago indicated that a rich vein of form is there to be mined. Owen Farrell, the young pretender, is not having such a great time of it, largely because Charlie Hodgson, the old sage, is performing so well for Saracens that Farrell finds himself playing at centre, if he plays at all.

Hodgson, now retired from international rugby, would be the form outside-half in the country but for Freddie Burns. The uncapped Gloucester midfielder has been the talk of the Premiership since the back end of last season and now he has a coach who presses all the right buttons – Nigel Davies, who arrived from Scarlets during the summer, is the perfect fit at Kingsholm – it may that the No 10 argument will be turned on its head by the end of the Six Nations in March.

Oh yes, almost forgot: George Ford, the Leicester teenager, has a bit about him too, as does that chap at Sale. Danny something-or-other. Come the next World Cup, these three could scrapping it out between them.

Scrum-half

The hub role is a position of strength: despite their contrasting styles, Danny Care of Harlequins, Ben Youngs of Leicester and Lee Dickson of Northampton are almost equally effective. Care, low-slung and positively oozing va-va-voom, played brilliantly against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth four months ago and deserves first dibs this autumn, even though the slightly more rounded Youngs showed signs of a return to form for the Tigers last weekend. Yet as Care and Youngs are both prone to the odd funny five minutes – or, in Youngs' case, the odd funny 40 minutes – there is hope for Dickson, less blessed with the God-given gifts but as energetic and combative as the day is long. For him, patience will be the principal virtue.

Props

Alex Corbisiero's injury problems are exasperating – to those who admire the intelligence of his rugby as well as the physicality of it, and also to the player himself, who must continue to watch the overtly aggressive Joe Marler of Harlequins cement his position in the starting front row. Marler's challenger in this Test window will be the uncapped Mako Vunipola of Saracens: while the England coaches expect Corbisiero to regain fitness soon, they do not realistically anticipate seeing him in the white shirt this side of Christmas.

On the tight-head side of the equation, Dan Cole of Leicester reigns supreme, partly because he is a ringer for King Henry VIII, but largely because he is the best. It would be simple to argue that he is currently England's finest player in any position, if there was any argument to be had.

Hooker

England's second finest player is Dylan Hartley, the Northampton captain, and his place at the heart of the scrum is unchallengeable as things stand. Which does not mean that Tom Youngs, the newcomer from Leicester, will be wasting his time turning up for training. Few hookers avoid injury for long – if Sean Fitzpatrick, the great All Black, was indestructible, he was also in a minority of one – so the understudy will get his chance soon enough.

Locks

Those who did their level best to hound Steve Borthwick out of the England team – and there were plenty of them – will probably not be man enough to acknowledge that the former captain is the form lock in the country once again, but it doesn't much matter: Borthwick's day is done at international level. Happily, the red-rose coaches have a similarly serious, intelligent, utterly dedicated second-row practitioner in Geoff Parling, who continues to grow in stature. Equally happily, one of rugby's forces of nature, Courtney Lawes of Northampton, is back after injury, his hunger for the fray sharpened by months of starvation rations. If the Lawes-Parling partnership develops as it should, the boilerhouse of the scrum will be the least of England's worries.

Flankers

While there are those who still wonder whether Chris Robshaw is most at home in the breakaway position, the footballing quality of his performance in last season's Premiership final, and the effectiveness of his subsequent scavenging against the Springboks, indicated an all-round command of this most demanding of roles. As no one has a bad word to say about his captaincy, he must remain in place. Alongside him? Tom Johnson has the ground-coverage and resilience; James Haskell the physical presence; Tom Wood the limitless aggression. When Tom Croft, the most athletic English back-rower since the young Lawrence Dallaglio, returns to fitness, the logjam will be all the greater.

No 8

Another straight race: Thomas Waldrom of Leicester, the incumbent, against Ben Morgan of Gloucester, the work in progress. All things being equal, Lancaster would opt for the latter: Morgan has "2015 World Cup" written all over him. But he is a whole lot better on the front foot than the back. England are about to face the three leading sides in world rugby, and are unlikely to be on the front foot all autumn.

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