England head coach Stuart Lancaster will have learnt a great deal about his fringe players following their impressive performances in the last-gasp defeat to New Zealand in the first Test at Eden Park. What he will have also learnt is that he has the depth within his squad to win the World Cup on home soil in 2015.
The England players who were unavailable to Lancaster in the first Test are key cogs in the machine. Up front, he was without his first-choice front row of Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole, not to mention Tom Youngs and Mako Vunipola.
To be able to call upon Joe Marler, David Wilson and Rob Webber is testament to England’s strength in that area. With the change of rules that allows for an additional prop on the bench, England can make substitutions with confidence, allowing those who start to play with greater intensity.
In the second row, Courtney Lawes—titanic in the Premiership final for Northampton Saints—adds athleticism and tackling ability in abundance. His partnership with Joe Launchbury is developing into the best in the world.
Moving to the back row, Tom Wood, Tom Croft and Billy Vunipola were all missing on Saturday, but James Haskell and Ben Morgan were excellent alongside captain Chris Robshaw.
Danny Care’s brain was missed at scrum-half against the Kiwis, and the starter at 10, Freddie Burns, is England’s third- or fourth-choice fly-half. The competition in midfield for the second Test will be fierce, with Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell fighting to take Kyle Eastmond’s spot at inside centre.
Furthermore, England’s options at full-back are world class. Mike Brown, the Six Nations' Player of the Championship and the English Premiership Player of the Year, is all the better for competition from Ben Foden, Alex Goode and Chris Pennell. Uncapped Pennell was nominated for the Premiership player award, and he thrived this season despite Worcester’s dreadful year.
The only place Lancaster is slightly short of options is on the wing. Hopes are high for Marland Yarde and Christian Wade, but both have struggled for fitness this year. Yarde is a powerful wing of the like England have not had since Ben Cohen. Wade is a livewire. In their absence during the Six Nations, Johnny May and Jack Nowell did not demand permanent starting berths—the pair managed only one try between them, Nowell’s in the rout of Italy.
But the fact that we can now look at the wing and suggest that Lancaster could do with stronger back-up there only underscores the strength he has elsewhere.
This depth should not come as a surprise. The English RFU is by far the richest union in the world. But it is also investing in the growth of the game and the players of the future. As CEO Ian Ritchie was quoted by ESPN in November: “We have made significant strides across the board allowing us to invest an additional £3.5m in grassroots rugby.”
The long-term future of the England team will be bright, and the current generation are positioning themselves well for 2015 and an assault on the William Webb Ellis Cup in England. England’s strength in depth will be a key factor in their strong World Cup challenge.