Eight years ago, when England travelled to Australia as World Cup favourites and lived up to their billing by winning the damned thing, Clive Woodward took four prop forwards rather than five. He armed himself with a specialist open-side flanker in Neil Back and picked an inside centre of immense rugby intellect in Will Greenwood, with a second "thinking midfielder", Mike Catt, in support. Sir Clive, as we must now address him, is just a little concerned that when the squad for this year's global gathering is confirmed today, it will bear little resemblance to the 2003 model.
There are indications that the current selector-in-chief, Martin Johnson, will split his party 17-13 in favour of the forwards – Woodward went 16-14, giving himself an extra back – and leave Riki Flutey, the most imaginative and least predictable of his midfielders, at home with Wasps. Nine tight forwards, together with three career centres and a part-timer in Matt Banahan, all of whom are about as subtle and sophisticated as a brick? If the rumours are correct, England will approach this tournament ultra-physically or not at all.
Continuing injury concerns over the Lions loose-head prop Andrew Sheridan have thrust the Bath forward David Wilson back into the equation. There also appears to have been a rethink as a result of the busted toe suffered by the Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care, who was looking like England's starting No 9 this time last week but now faces the prospect of a month in plaster. Johnson, uncomfortably aware that the Leicester half-back Ben Youngs has yet to prove his fitness in match conditions after surgery earlier this summer, has no option but to take a third player, the uncapped Joe Simpson, in this most influential of roles.
If only he had two No 12s as good as Greenwood at his disposal, or a couple of No 7s in the Back mould. Partly through misfortune and partly through Johnson's own prejudices, England are not in that happy position. Who says? Woodward says, and he should know.
"To win a World Cup," he reminded us in a BBC interview yesterday, "you need great players at scrum-half and outside-half. But you also need quality specialists at No 7 and No 12 and I'm not sure England have them. There may be a bit of a hole there." Intriguingly, he also said: "Selection is down to the coach and Martin knows he will be judged on the World Cup. He will live or die by the choices he makes now. If I was in charge now my squad would be different in a few places."
The open-side issue has been a live one for some time, and not simply because Lewis Moody, pretty much certain to lead the side if fit, has been struggling with a chronic knee injury. Moody is not a natural breakaway – many believe him to be more effective on the blind-side flank – and, as his back-ups, Tom Wood and James Haskell, share similar characteristics, it is not difficult to understand Woodward's concern. John Barclay of Scotland, Sam Warburton of Wales, Heinrich Brussow of South Africa, David Pocock of Australia, the great Richie McCaw of New Zealand... these are pure No 7s. England are set to travel without one.
Whatever happens in the back row, there is now a very strong likelihood that Toby Flood of Leicester, the first-choice outside-half for almost 18 months, will see some action at inside centre – a tactical shift that will give Jonny Wilkinson a free run in the No 10 role he famously performed in 2003. This will have ramifications: Flood plays far flatter than his illustrious colleague and is more adept at freeing his centres. But if there are no centres worth freeing, he might as well move from 10 to 12. Heaven knows, England need something on in that position.
England face Ireland in Dublin this weekend in the last of their warm-up matches. Will Moody be fit? Will Sheridan? Will Flood and Wilkinson be paired together? Is Simpson really up to it? This close to a World Cup, the list of unknowns is unnervingly long.Reuse content