Predicting England's XV to Face France
England kick off their 2014 Six Nations Campaign on Feb. 1 under the lights in Paris against last year’s wooden spoonists France.
Despite a year that has been more Les Miserables than Magnifique, France are still capable of turning in a performance full of flare and fire in front of a pumped up home crowd.
England continue to search for the right blend in certain areas, while other players have done a good job of cementing themselves in Stuart Lancaster’s plans for the long term.
If the Grand Slam they missed out on in Cardiff in 2013 is not to elude them again, they will need to hit the ground running with arguably their toughest fixture up first.
Time to get the red rose-tinted crystal ball out and have a look at the XV Lancaster could pick to clip the cockerel’s wings.
The Back Three
15. Mike Brown
Brown emerged in greater credit than any other England player from the autumn campaign. At long last he was given the shirt he feels most comfortable in, and he reveled in it. Safe under bombardment, solid in defence and sharp on the counter, Brown met every challenge and conquered it. Should be one of the first names on Stuart Lancaster’s team sheet.
14. Christian Wade
It was obvious ahead of the second Test of the autumn that Lancaster wanted to give Wade a chance ahead of the out-of-form Chris Ashton. If fit and firing for Wasps, there is no reason he won’t get the shirt against France. His razor sharp attacking skill set speaks for itself, but a step up in level will put his defensive positioning to the test. Lancaster needs to find out about this aspect of Wade’s game before 2015.
11. Marland Yarde
A solid home debut against Australia featured flashes of his pace and power in attack as well as a little naivety when he is turned round, but Yarde’s development can only continue with further starts on the left wing.
12. Billy Twelvetrees
The Gloucester man grew into the autumn series despite his partnership with Joel Tomkins failing to pass Go.
While Tomkins should find himself back in the domestic ranks for the time being, the man they like to call 36 deserves further time to exhibit his passing and running lines.
Brad Barritt, whose foot problem keeps him out until Christmas, may not have enough time to get back up to full speed. In any event, Lancaster may prefer to extend Twelvetrees’ run as he seemed to be finding his feet by the end of the autumn. The problem is filling the shirt outside him.
13. Luther Burrell
What a shame Manu Tuilagi is rules out until February. He would prove an excellent contrast with the subtlety of Twelvetrees inside him.
Who to fill his boots?
Let’s go as far as predicting Joel Tomkins will not get another chance. He looked out of his depth during the autumn Tests and will need to do something seriously impressive between now and February for Saracens if he is to retain his place.
If we look at the squad Lancaster picked for the autumn, Henry Trinder appears to be the next train on the platform, but the other option is to move big Luther Burrell out there. His form suggests he deserves his chance, and Lancaster is big on rewarding form.
Burrell nicks it.
9. Ben Youngs
Lancaster’s stance is such that he rewards form, which was the basis for Lee Dickson’s inclusion ahead of Youngs and Danny Care in the autumn. Youngs remains the option with a better all-round game, though. His box kick is better than Dickson’s and his speed is superior.
10. Owen Farrell
With Toby Flood’s uninspiring cameos in the autumn and George Ford still regarded as one for the future, the No. 10 shirt is Farrell’s to lose. He needs to find the formula to ignite his back line, but his goal kicking and all-round temperament make him the man England will want to marshal the troops.
The Back Row
6. Tom Wood
Wood was excellent throughout the autumn series and has become this team’s Mr Dependable. His work rate is exemplary in terms of tackle count and industry at the breakdown.
7. Chris Robshaw (captain)
Robshaw had a fine autumn and dovetailed nicely with Wood to give the opposition a tough time of it at the breakdown.
Fears about their partnership failing to produce the same impact an out and out No. 7—such as Gloucester's Matt Kvesic—would offer are not proving well-grounded at present.
In terms of his captaincy, Robshaw also proved his thought processes have improved. Opting to keep going to the catch and drive against New Zealand bore fruit in the shape of Joe Launchbury’s try.
8. Billy Vunipola
The coaches gave Vunipola some simple instructions in the autumn and he carried them out impressively. Carrying the ball forwards and getting England on the front foot is his job, and he did it well.
He should retain the starting jersey, with the formidable running of Ben Morgan available from the bench when big Billy has done his hour.
4. Joe Launchbury
The young Wasps thruster was excellent once again in the autumn series. His tackling, scrummaging, mauling and ability to run good support lines mark him out as a potential superstar.
5. Courtney Lawes
Lawes deserves to be retained over Geoff Parling. He proved he can run the lineout against the best side in the world and the rest of his game was not dulled by the extra responsibility.
Parling is a great man to bring off the bench.
1. Alex Corbisiero
The Lions hero is proving himself worryingly injury-prone, but if fit, he will be first choice at loose head. He remains the most destructive scrummager in the squad and is excellent with ball in hand. He must get fit and stay fit.
2. Dylan Hartley
Hartley was outstanding against New Zealand. Both scrum and lineout came apart when he was removed from the action, which only further demonstrates that he has jumped to the front of the queue ahead of Tom Youngs.
3. Dan Cole
Cole remains first pick at tight head with Lancaster safe in the knowledge that Davey Wilson can do a great back-up job.