Rugby World Cup 2015: With a year to go until the tournament begins, how are England shaping up?

The most important year of Stuart Lancaster's reign begins against New Zealand on 8 November

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The Independent Online

With exactly 365 days to go until England get the 2015 Rugby World Cup underway at Twickenham against Fiji, the hosts are beginning to finalise their plans before launching their attempt to win the coveted William Webb Ellis trophy for the first time since the famous 2003 victory Down Under.

Stuart Lancaster has broken down and rebuilt a team that he inherited under difficult circumstances following the debacle that was the 2011 World Cup campaign, and under the guidance of the Cumbrian the national team has developed into a close-knit, hard-working and extremely talented side.

Yet they have still failed to win a Six Nations Grand Slam title since that World Cup-winning year, and they will have one more chance to do so along with a bumper autumn program that sees the Red Rose take on the best that the Southern Hemisphere has to offer.

So how are England shaping up a year out from the curtain-raising game at HQ?

How many games have England got left?

As it stands, England have nine games before getting their World Cup program underway. It begins on 8 November, when the All Blacks will arrive in South-West London looking to continue their form in the summer that saw them whitewash England 3-0 on home soil. England will take heart from their performance in the first Test and the second half of the second Test, and will hope that a tired Kiwi side will arrive off the back of a tough Rugby Championship campaign with which they can catch them cold.

England face New Zealand in the opening match of the summer program

Following that, Lancaster’s side face South Africa, Samoa and Australia in consecutive weeks, where anything other than victory would be deemed as a failure given it will be the last time they will meet before the World Cup itself.

The squad will then reconvene in February ahead of the Six Nations campaign that begins with arguably the toughest match of the championship – Wales in Cardiff on a Friday night. England host Italy before travelling to Dublin to take on the Irish, and wrap up the campaign with back-to-back home matches against Scotland and France where they will hope to celebrate a Grand Slam title.

Will they play any World Cup warm-up matches?

Yes, England will have three World Cup warm-up matches that will see them take on France in a double header either side of the channel, before hosting Ireland a fortnight before the tournament gets underway. Lancaster could take one of two options for the matches, as he could look to give his first-choice squad extra game time together, or more likely choose to give fringe players a run-out to see if they merit inclusion in his squad.

Who could force their way into the squad?

The major talking point is currently whether England should be selecting arguably the best openside flanker in the Northern Hemisphere, Steffon Armitage. The Toulon back-row forward is putting in performance after performance in France, yet is constantly overlooked for international inclusion due to the preference not to select overseas players.

Steffon Armitage has been continuously overlooked by England since moving to France

The situation at fly-half is an intriguing one in there are four players who are currently challenging for the No 10 shirt. While it’s hard to look beyond Owen Farrell for the starting line-up, a drop in form would leave the door open to any one of George Ford, Danny Cipriani and a resurgent Freddie Burns – whose partnership with Ben Youngs at Leicester is certainly one to keep an eye on.

The loosehead prop situation is moreover one of concern for Lancaster. While Joe Marler has taken on more responsibility at Harlequins by assuming the captaincy – somewhat surprisingly given he has inherited it from England skipper Chris Robshaw – Alex Corbisiero is expected to regain the No 1 shirt from Marler proving he can maintain his fitness after a string of serious knee injuries. The dislocated kneecap suffered by Mako Vunipola is also a cause for concern given his impact off the bench over the past two seasons, and that doesn’t even take into account that the influential Dan Cole remains in the sidelines as he continues his recovery from neck surgery that will keep him out of the autumn.

England captain Chris Robshaw is under pressure to keep his place

There is the opportunity for a number of emerging talents to tie-down a place in Lancaster’s squad, especially out on the wing. Chris Ashton has mounted a resurgence in form that saw him recalled during the tour of New Zealand, but he faces the threat of being replaced for the autumn if he doesn’t improve his extremely questionable defence. Christian Wade, for once, is as full fitness and his attacking threat alone merits inclusion, while new Harlequins signing Marland Yarde appears to be a permanent fixture in the current side – and rightly so.

Three into two doesn’t go, but when you take a look at the wider picture you can see just how competitive it has become out wide. Jack Nowell is firmly on the comeback trail after playing for Exeter’s A-team this week, and the likes of Anthony Watson and Jonny May still hold realistic aspirations of inclusion in next year’s squad. It’s this wealth of talent that, unfortunately, sees the likes of David Strettle and Tom Varndell completely out of the reckoning.

What do England need before the World Cup?

Confirmation that either Chris Robshaw or Lancaster’s captain of choice for the next year would be nice. While it keeps Robshaw and the potential replacements to skipper the side – Tom Wood, Dylan Hartley et al – on their toes, it is rather unsettling that know that the Quins back-rower is on a tournament-by-tournament basis.

It would also be interesting should Armitage take advantage of the new salary cap rules to announce a return to England in the summer, forcing Lancaster’s hand to see if he would drop Robshaw to accommodate the destructive flanker, or whether Tom Wood would pay the price as Robshaw would be switched to the blindside.

Luther Burrell has impressed since making his England debut in the Six Nations

The conundrum that is the England centre partnership continues to rumble, although signs towards the end of last season appeared to show that a Luther Burrell-Manu Tuilagi combo could be just the ticket. Needless to say, Billy Twelvetrees’ recent form has certainly played a part in playing the Gloucester captain out of the starting XV.