Chris Robshaw and England's Back-Row Riches
After recently signing a new contract with his club Harlequins, Chris Robshaw will be focusing on cementing his spot in the England side for the forthcoming international season.
But the Quins skipper has his work cut out as England's options in the back row will present head coach Stuart Lancaster with possibly his most challenging selections.
As well as Robshaw, who has captained England for the last two seasons, Lancaster has back rowers Tom Wood, Tom Croft, Ben Morgan, Matt Kvesic and Billy Vunipola.
Clearly, six into three won't go.
Added to the mix are those in the Saxons who will be pushing for promotion, with the likes of James Haskell and Tom Johnson more determined than ever to get back among the elite after dropping down in the last squad announcement.
We take a look at the growing riches available to Lancaster in his elite player squad.
Chris Robshaw, Harlequins
Lancaster rested Robshaw for England's trip to Argentina, and the Harlequin therefore had to watch from afar as both the Lions and England had successful tours.
And nor has Lancaster guaranteed that Robshaw will be his skipper for the forthcoming autumn internationals, which suggests strongly that first he has to prove himself worthy of starting.
Robshaw divides opinion, because he is not an out-and-out openside. He's been described as a six-and-a-half, while he also has played No. 8 for the Quins.
But Robshaw is nothing if not robust, and he has faced similar criticisms before. His captaincy is under threat and his spot at No. 7 is under threat, but expect Robshaw to rise to the challenge.
As reported by Chris Foy of the Daily Mail, there is already talk of him returning to action faster and fitter.
Tom Wood, Northampton
Like Robshaw, Wood can play both sides of the back-row, although he has been a regular starter at No. 6 for England, the position from which he led them with distinction in their victorious tour of Argentina.
Wood is a no-nonsense forward who has established himself as one of England's leaders.
He provides a genuine alternative to Robshaw as captain. As well as this, he provides an alternative at No.8, the position he played in during the last Six Nations when Morgan was injured.
And with Lancaster's new options at No. 7 in the form of Kvesic, Wood and Robshaw might find themselves competing more in the season ahead for the blindside spot in the England's starting XV.
Tom Croft, Leicester
Despite a storming end to the season with club side Leicester, Croft never quite reproduced that form for the Lions. He started the first Test, but was overlooked for the remaining two.
Croft had been a shoe-in for England until a serious neck injury saw him miss a big chunk of last season and allowed Wood to establish himself as the first-choice No. 6.
But Croft returned in splendid fashion and played a key role for Leicester as they steam-rolled their way to Premiership success.
He is one of the most effective lineout forwards in world rugby, while his outstanding turn of speed adds something dynamic that no other back-rower can offer.
Croft added some bulk during his enforced injury layoff in a bid to increase his close-quarter impact.
Expect him to push hard for the No. 6 jersey in England's season ahead.
Ben Morgan, Gloucester
Morgan is an out-and-out No. 8 who cemented himself as England's first choice with some outstanding performances in the 2012 Six Nations championship.
He missed most of this year's Six Nations through injury, but he bounced back in impressive fashion during England's trip to Argentina, where he claimed his first Test try.
Morgan is a big man, weighing in at more than 18 stones. But he also has a good turn of speed, good hands and an exceptional ability to break tackles.
And at only 24, there is clearly more to come from the Gloucester ace.
Morgan's challenge for the No. 8 jersey is likely to come from Vunipola. One likely option will be for Lancaster to play Morgan for an hour before bringing on the fresh legs of Vunipola.
Matt Kvesic, Gloucester
According to many observers, England's lack of an out-and-out No. 7 has been an issue for several seasons.
As mentioned earlier in this piece, Robshaw is considered by some as more of a blindside. Some observers claim that he does not have the speed and build for a genuine fetcher, like Australia's David Pocock or England legend Neil Back.
The Gloucester openside was promoted to England's elite squad on the back of those showings and is seen as a genuine alternative to Robshaw.
He is only 21 so may be used more as a replacement in the forthcoming international season, but there is no doubt he has the potential to establish himself as England's starting seven in time for the 2015 World Cup.
Billy Vunipola, Saracens
Another wrecking-ball option at No. 8, Billy Vunipola is the younger brother of England prop Mako Vunipola.
And like his brother, he likes nothing better than to get the ball in his hands and cause havoc in the opposition defence, which he did with impressive effect for Wasps last season.
These performances earned him two caps as replacement on the tour of Argentina, which he marked with his first international try.
Remarkably, Billy Vunipola is still only 20, and his near-20-stone frame is likely to become a very genuine weapon for England over the next few years.
Expect him to play an impact role for England and Saracens in the season ahead, coming on for Morgan in the last 20 minutes.
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