Selecting England's Squad for New Zealand and Predicting 1st Test XV
England travel to New Zealand for a tour that will greatly inform Stuart Lancaster's thinking ahead of next year's World Cup. It is the toughest examination his players will face between now and when the tournament kicks off.
But gleaning the most he can from the series has been made a whole lot trickier thanks to a dog's breakfast of a schedule.
The May 31 date of the Aviva Premiership final between Saracens and Northampton means Lancaster will be without 13 players certain to be on the tour.
His side for the first Test on June 7 will therefore be somewhat understrength, a situation that former England hooker and Telegraph columnist Brian Moore believes makes the tour pointless. But Moore doesn't lay the blame at the door of the English club game's rulers, rather turning his guns on the All Blacks:
Nobody has yet been able to explain how New Zealand were able to persuade the International Rugby Board that the date of the first Test complies with the rule that the Test window runs from the second weekend in June.
The southern hemisphere have ruled that this is June 6-7 and that May 31-June 1 is the first weekend, which is strange given that one of those dates clearly has the word May in it.
But this is where the litmus test comes. England have been building what has been perceived to be a better depth to their playing group over the last 18 months, and we are about to see how deep that pool goes.
In December, the RFU announced Lancaster's touring party for these three Tests and a midweek game against the Crusaders could be as large as 40. Even if he takes that many, front row, second row, back row, fly-half, centre and wing are all areas lacking players who would or could be first choice for that match in Auckland.
But their understudies will be taking to the stage with the chance to stake their claims.
Here is the predicted squad, including those coming late to the party, followed by my pick for the first Test.
Mike Brown, Harlequins
The England camp are confident Brown will shake off his injury concerns to retain the No. 15 jersey for the tour. With the extra rest afforded him by Quins' exit from the Premiership title hunt at the semi-final stage, the player of this season's Six Nations is as close a thing to a starting certainty as there is in this squad.
England, especially in their depleted state for the first Test, will need their talisman to be at his best to counter the all-court game posed by the All Blacks.
Ben Foden, Northampton
Foden will link up late after the English domestic final but is firmly down the pecking order. If Brown's niggling hamstring sustained in Quins' semi-final defeat to Saracens doesn't heal, the Saints man will move up the ladder.
Alex Goode, Saracens
The Saracens man is the current understudy to Mike Brown and will be another latecomer who could figure in the starting line-up later in the tour should Brown's hamstring betray him. Goode is a consistent performer and can also function at No. 10 if needed.
Anthony Watson, Bath
Should Mike Brown not recover from his hamstring problems, Watson will be the player to deputise. A debut at full-back against the All Blacks in Auckland can be viewed one of two ways: the chance of a lifetime to prove you are can live up to the hype or a graveyard in which your international career dreams go to die. Watson might just get the chance to see which category he falls into.
Chris Ashton, Saracens
Ashton will join the squad late but his form in the black and red of Saracens demands his return to the squad, maybe even the first-choice XV. Ashton has been in red-hot form in both the Premiership and the Heineken Cup and deserves another chance following a poor 2013 in England white.
Marland Yarde, London Irish
Yarde's promising start international career was cut short by injury following a reasonable showing against Australia in the autumn. Now fit, he gets the chance to press his claims for a return to the starting side. Jack Nowell's injury leaves a spot on the wing open, and with Ashton engaged in Premiership final duties for the first Test, this could be Yarde's chance to nail the spot.
Jonny May, Gloucester
May did everything but find the try line in an otherwise impressive Six Nations. That will linger in the minds of the coaches as they look to add a razor's edge to their finishing ability. In New Zealand, chances could be limited, so if he gets his chance, May will need to show he has located the killer instinct.
Manu Tuilagi, Leicester
Tuilagi has eased nicely back into fitness and form since his return at the fag end of the Six Nations, and he looks likely to start in the centres for the first Test with Luther Burrell playing in the Premiership final.
His style will be nothing new to the All Black midfielders reared on a diet of Pacific Island-born hard-charging centres, but he provided them with more than they could handle in that famous game in 2012, and if he gets enough ball, he can do some damage.
Luther Burrell, Northampton
Burrell will catch the later plane after settling the Premiership final with Saracens, but whether he gets straight back into the side will depend on how the back line performs in the first Test. Should Tuilagi and Twelvetrees hit it off, will Lancaster be tempted to stick or will he want to reunite the pair who were so effective in the Six Nations, possibly shifting Tuilagi to the wing?
With injuries to Jack Nowell and Christian Wade leaving the wide men a little thin on the ground, Tuilagi will at least be viewed as cover there.
Billy Twelvetrees, Gloucester
Twelvetrees became a far better player for England in the Six Nations, partnering brilliantly with Luther Burrell and providing an accomplished kicking option outside Owen Farrell. He will start in the first Test and a solid display will see him keep the shirt.
Brad Barritt, Saracens
Barritt lost his place in the side through injury, and this is his first chance to regain it. But the Saracen finds himself on the back foot with Billy Twelvetrees set to start the first Test while he shakes off his late arrival. Barritt could have a midweek opportunity to force his way in.
Kyle Eastmond, Bath
The Bath livewire hasn't seen England action since his barnstorming debut on last summer's tour of Argentina, but for the first Test, he looks likely to provide midfield cover off the bench. A strong showing in midweek if he gets a game could give England's coaches much food for thought.
Owen Farrell, Saracens
Farrell must be odds on to take the reins at No. 10 once he arrives after his European and domestic finals business is done. He has matured into a commanding presence at fly-half and surely deserves to test himself in the toughest environment of them all.
Stephen Myler, Northampton
The Northampton man has been in and around the England setup for a while now and will come with the rest of the Premiership finalists as cover for Farrell. Depending on how the first Test goes, he could be put straight on to the bench as the next best bet after Farrell.
Freddie Burns, Gloucester
Burns is far from the form he showed that boosted him to England recognition in 2012 but will touch down with the first crop of players in New Zealand as the No. 10 with the most familiarity with the England playbook. That could be enough to see him start the first Test ahead of Danny Cipriani who, with George Ford's scheduled operation ruling him out, looks certain to go. Cipriani has the better form, though.
Danny Cipriani, Sale
Back in the training squad and seemingly back in the good graces of the England hierarchy, Cipriani's chequered past has been wiped from the slate, and it is now up to him how the next chapter in his career is written. Lancaster needs two fly-halves for that first week and also has the option of deploying the Sale man at full-back should circumstances require it. This is Cipriani's big chance, and he knows it.
Danny Care, Harlequins
Care took his game to a whole new level in the Six Nations and will be the first-choice scrum-half in New Zealand. He has added maturity to all that electricity, and his decision-making has improved no end. He could catch the All Blacks cold in the first Test.
Ben Youngs, Leicester
Youngs fell down the pecking order for the No. 9 jersey despite being a Test Lion this time last year. He will take any opportunity given to him to press his claims for the starting spot, which means Danny Care will most likely play out of his skin.
Lee Dickson, Northampton
The Saints scrum-half will battle it out for the bench spot with Ben Youngs behind Danny Care once he arrives after the Premiership final, but given he is yet another of those hopping on the later plane, he could arrive and leave as third-choice No. 9.
Ben Morgan, Gloucester
Morgan may have been unlucky to lose his starting place to Billy Vunipola, but once the Saracens No. 8 got going, it became nigh on impossible for Morgan to dislodge him until injury intervened. Now Vunipola will be on club duty for the first Test, Morgan has another opportunity to remind the coaches of his worth as a starting No. 8.
Billy Vunipola, Saracens
Vunipola will join the party after the Premiership final, but his chances of starting the second Test very much depend on how Morgan fares up against Kieran Read and Co. in week one. There is no doubt the Saracens man can break the line more effectively from a standing start, and his ability to offload round the back of a tackler may well edge him ahead of his Gloucester rival.
Chris Robshaw, Harlequins
Robshaw remains the captain and the rallying point for this side. He faces a stern test of his capabilities in New Zealand, not only as a No. 7 but in a land where the rub of the green rarely goes the opposition's way.
Tom Wood, Northampton
Assuming Wood survives the Premiership final, he will slot back into the back row for the second Test. He has begun to establish himself as the new "silent assassin" of this England group and will be required to extend his lungs and limbs just that bit further in what has been his best season so far.
Tom Johnson, Exeter
Johnson is a likely first Test starter with Wood absent. The Exeter man has been in fine form this season and gets the chance to test himself against the best and make a strong claim for a place in next year's World Cup squad.
Matt Kvesic, Gloucester
Kvesic should go to provide cover on the openside flank for Robshaw. The Gloucester man is regarded as more of a conventional No. 7 but has never had the chance to show what he can do at the highest level. Midweek should at least give him a chance to impress.
Geoff Parling, Leicester
Parling showed his class in the 2013 Lions tour when he stepped into the gaping hole left by the injured Paul O'Connell for the second and third Tests. Stuart Lancaster will have seen Leicester's exit from the Premiership semi-final as a blessing for England with the outcome that he will have Parling at his disposal for the first Test.
Joe Launchbury, Wasps
The plaudits rightly came Launchbury's way after an outstanding Six Nations. He needs to maintain that level of performance against the All Blacks and perhaps add a little more leadership in terms of ball-carrying in the first Test with Courtney Lawes still on club duty.
Courtney Lawes, Northampton
There is little that hasn't been written or said about Lawes. Safe to say England will struggle to replace his physicality in the first Test, but when he does come back into the fold, it will be intriguing to see how England fare with him rather than without. We could be about to realise his true worth to this team.
Dave Attwood, Bath
If Attwood comes through unscathed from Bath's Amlin final against Northampton, he should be on the plane to New Zealand and, as an impressive replacement for England this season, is another lock-in with a great shout of seeing action in the first Test.
Ed Slater, Leicester
Slater has been pushing hard for international recognition since being installed in the Elite Player Squad in January and may get his chance in the first Test. The Leicester man has had an excellent season and deserves his chance. It may be tempting to blood him alongside the familiar figure of club-mate Geoff Parling in a side with so many players alien to each other.
Joe Marler, Harlequins
Marler has grown into a solid international loosehead, providing England with three outstanding choices at No. 1 with the Quins man vying for the shirt with Mako Vunipola and Alex Corbisiero when the Saints player is fit. Marler will start the opening Test and should hang on to the jersey when Vunipola arrives.
Davey Wilson, Bath
Wilson was the big selection risk for Lancaster in the Six Nations. After losing Dan Cole to long-term injury, England's tighthead prop stocks looked worryingly thin. Wilson was only just recovering from injury himself when he was thrown into the mix against Ireland.
He struggled a little in the scrum but coped manfully and never gave in. Then he blossomed against Wales and the worries melted away. Wilson will start and has the chance to prove he can mix it with the best.
Mako Vunipola, Saracens
The Saracens prop has had a tremendous season and will push Joe Marler hard for the No. 1 jersey when he touches down after Saracens complete their campaign, but you get the sense he is, in Stuart Lancaster's eyes, more effective as a ball-carrying impact player than a starter.
Henry Thomas, Sale
The Sale prop is next in line for the tighthead shirt and has impressed in a resurgent second half of the season for Sale. A place among the replacements and some game time in midweek seem most likely.
Dave Ward, Harlequins
With Dylan Hartley most probably out of the equation through injury and Tom Youngs staying at home due to his wife's illness, opportunity knocks for Ward. The former Cornish Pirate is the Quins' player of the year and deserves his chance after a roller-coaster career as reported by the Guardian's Rob Kitson, but exposing him to this level is a risk.
Rob Webber, Bath
If Webber recovers from his ankle injury, he stands a fine chance of making the Test team for the first fixture. He has had a solid season for Bath and is more familiar with the England setup than Ward.
Rob Buchanan, Harlequins
England need three hookers on tour, and Buchanan stands a chance of going as cover and perhaps a place on the bench should he and Dave Ward be the only No. 2s fit enough to play in the first Test.
The Starting XV for the 1st Test
15. Mike Brown
14. Jonny May
13. Manu Tuilagi
12. Billy Twelvetrees
11. Marland Yarde
10. Danny Cipriani
9. Danny Care
8. Ben Morgan
7. Chris Robshaw (c)
6. Tom Johnson
5. Dave Attwood
4. Joe Launchbury
3. David Wilson
2. Dave Ward
1. Joe Marler
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