November 8 will perhaps be the biggest match yet for Stuart Lancaster’s England Rugby Union side, as they go up against New Zealand at Twickenham.
It is fair to suggest that the Six Nations decider against Wales two years ago is perhaps the only more meaningful test that this England side have faced under Lancaster’s stewardship. With the the upcoming Autumn International against the All Blacks at rugby HQ comes one of only three opportunities for England to show that they can beat one of the Southern Hemisphere’s elite.
Every England fan will have been encouraged with the progress under Lancaster, with a switch from a turgid, naive and sometimes incomprehensible style to a far more fluid, passionate and intense brand of rugby. Lancaster’s insistence on bringing in young and exciting players who are performing for their clubs has intensified competition for places, keeping egos low and performance levels high. Lancaster’s toughest managerial period will be determined by whether he can replace a front row of Dan Cole, Alex Corbisiero and Tom Youngs, who all remain out with long-term injuries along with the Kiwi’s tormentor-in-chief from two years ago, Manu Tuilagi.
Positions four to eight are as strong as they ever have been and England boast a genuinely world-class lock pairing in Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes. With so much back-row quality to choose from, captain Chris Robshaw will definitely be well-supported at blindside and No.8.
The battle for the scrum-half shirt is between Ben Youngs, Danny Care and Lee Dickson. Expect Care to start and attempt to initiate an electric tempo early on. Recent ever-presents Owen Farrell and Mike Brown will also surely keep their places in the XV, meaning the major decisions for Lancaster will be in the centre. The Bath duo of Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph will certainly provide attacking spark, but the superior distribution and defence of Billy Twelvetrees or Brad Barritt may well be favoured. On current form, Bath flyer Semesa Rokoduguni should get the nod on one wing, but the other wing position is anyone’s guess.
England are about to embark on a crucial four weeks in their preparations for a home World Cup. Next Saturday will reveal a huge amount about whether this England side have the resolve necessary to win next year. Most believe that the quality is there in glimpses, but four consecutive matches against the best in the world will really indicate whether the performances of 2003 can be replicated.
Image courtesy of theguardian.com