It cannot have been an easy couple of weeks for Stuart Lancaster, watching player after player forced out of the autumn series. It is the toughest run of games England have faced at this time of year – after Fiji on Saturday it is back-to-back matches against the world's top three sides – and it leaves the coach with several conundrums to puzzle over before announcing his team to play the Pacific Islanders tomorrow.
There are selection issues all over the park, but the encouragement for Lancaster is that, despite all these injuries, this is no bad thing. In a number of positions there are a host of good players pushing for a starting place – take the centre, take Ugo Monye pushing for a return on the wing, take the No 9 shirt and No 10 – in others the choice is starker and there are concerns over the No 8 role and at full-back.
It's far from the perfect situation for Lancaster to begin the season with. But it is times like this when you get to test out the strength and depth of your resources and that matters in a sport where injuries always will and always have taken a heavy toll. As a coach, you can see which guys are going to come through and which will fall short.
The first choice for Lancaster is how to treat the Fiji match given what lies ahead. England expect to beat Fiji but they are a tough side and it will be a bruising encounter. They are not usually so adept at the set pieces but they are big individuals with a magnificent ability to play in broken field. Their style of play is a challenge – you have to make sure they don't get that broken field to play in where they can hurt you.
The autumn series has to be seen as a chance to experiment, although this year the need to secure a top four ranking ahead of the World Cup draw adds weight to the basic need to win the matches. It is a good order of games – each one likely to prove more difficult. Against Fiji I expect a win, against Australia a win is possible. South Africa have shown what they are about in the Championship with that brand of bruising rugby. But there is definitely an opportunity there for England – cast your minds back to the summer tour where we saw the improvements England made going into the final Test. There is a win there if everything goes right.
Which leaves New Zealand, without a doubt the best side in the world, and I just can't see us beating them at the moment. The squad is not experienced enough and with the number of injuries around, that looks a game too far. You have to be realistic. If England come out of it with two wins, then they are on an even keel and heading in the right direction. Anything more than that and they are doing very well. Anything less than that and it will be a challenge to pick it up again for the Six Nations, although do not lose sight of the fact that Lancaster's plan is a long-term one aimed at the 2015 World Cup.
Now for those Lancaster conundrums. At No 9 and No 10 he is spoilt for choice. Danny Care has had a cracking start to the season, some of his performances have been absolutely blinding, but at the back of his mind maybe Lancaster still has questions over his temperament. We have seen it in the past but Care's ability is without question. Ben Youngs has just started to come back into the form that saw him blast on to the international stage in 2010. He has good experience gathered over the last couple of seasons with England. Although Lee Dickson has not been included in the match-day squad, I know they love the way he trains and he remains a future contender.
At 10, it is great to see a call-up for Freddie Burns, whose form for Gloucester has been outstanding. Some of the tries he has both scored and created have been breathtaking. I watched him play against my old club Leicester last month when he scored 17 points and created more – his individual performance was incredible. Burns's time will come but I expect Lancaster to go with Toby Flood, who has started the season better than Owen Farrell. Again it is a tough call – Farrell has done all that has been asked of him under Stuart's regime. Flood has previously had to take a back seat but looks likely to get the nod for this campaign.
There are three potential problem areas. Ben Foden is a big miss at full-back, but at least he will return eventually. No 8 is the most worrying area, where we lack one player standing up to say, 'This is going to be my shirt.' Thomas Waldrom has got the nod ahead of Ben Morgan and James Haskell. They have all played some good rugby but there is no clear first choice.
The front row has been hit hard by injury, although that will ease if Joe Marler comes through in time. The big question here is, will Tom Youngs get a start at hooker? I hope so. He has been playing well and starting ahead of the old war horse George Chuter at Leicester. There have been doubts raised over his lineout throwing. But people forget that in a lineout there is more than one component; there is the lifter, the jumper, the thrower and the timing of all of those different parts. If any one of those goes wrong then the ball will not get to its destination and that is not always the fault of the hooker. Some of the criticism has not been accurate. Youngs is a quality young player in the making – I have no doubt about that.
The injuries and this tough fixture list may make it seem a bit doom and gloom over the next few weeks but I am excited about this England side, on the pitch and off it too with Andy Farrell back and Mike Catt too now permanently involved in the coaching set-up.
This is a great opportunity – so many young guys are going to be thrown into this series, into what is already a relatively young side, growing in experience every time they take the pitch. Lancaster's goal is – and always has been – 2015 when the World Cup comes to England. Seeding is undoubtedly an important factor over the next month but his main consideration is getting to 2015 in the best possible condition to win that tournament. He is playing a long game.
Moody's men: Three to watch in the autumn
Tom Youngs England
Having played with Tom Youngs, I know he has a straightforward attitude to the game. He just gets on with it, does his carries, does his work incredibly well. He is a little wrecking ball of a hooker and ball carrier when he gets the chance. He could be one surprise package.
Ross Rennie Scotland
He may not be a young player but this is a guy who can push for a Lions back-row spot if he continues to play like he did last year. He had an outstanding season barring that one glaring error against England when he failed to deliver in a two on one against Ben Foden.
Justin Tipuric Wales
An exciting talent who can play either six or seven and he could soon even be good enough to threaten Sam Warburton's place. He is confrontational, great over the ball, quick, good at pressurising the opposition and has a relentless work rate.
Lewis Moody is a TAG Heuer ambassador