With just over a year to go until the Rugby World Cup in England, Lancaster must make key selection decisions quickly in order to give the players experience and time to gel ahead of the tournament in 2015.
Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell look pensive following defeat to the New Zealand All Blacks
On the tighthead side, Dan Cole and David Wilson will be Lancaster’s pair for the World Cup. At loosehead, however, if all are fit, Lancaster will have to choose one starter and one replacement from Alex Corbisiero, Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola. This decision will be crucial to how England will play.
Corbisiero is the best scrummager and defender, while Vunipola gives England great mobility and carrying ability in attack. Vunipola’s scrummaging is suspect, however. Meanwhile, Joe Marler is improving in every department, but he doesn’t have a standout asset. Corbisiero is the likeliest to start, which means the decision to play Vunipola or Marler will highlight England’s tactical thinking.
Play Marler, and England will try to drain the opposition up-front and win penalties in the second-half against a tiring pack. Play Vunipola, however, and England will sacrifice scrummaging muscle, but they will gain a dangerous ball-carrier. This decision at prop will reveal Lancaster’s tactical game plan: conservative and pragmatic or aggressive.
Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury are excellent second-rows. They are the most mobile combination in world rugby and were crucial to England’s fine performances in the 2014 RBS Six Nations.
However, Stuart Lancaster remains loyal to Geoff Parling, who was injured during the Six Nations. Indeed, in the lead up to the third Test against New Zealand, as per The Guardian, Lancaster noted that he had been the “outstanding forward” on tour.
Parling is the line-out mastermind, a strong leader and a fine tackler, but he is not in Lawes’ or Launchbury’s class as an athlete. Is Lawes’ line-out know-how improving fast enough to keep Parling out of the equation? Parling is an important figurehead, but England are well stocked in that department with Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and Owen Farrell.
Then there is Dave Attwood. If Lancaster wants some hard graft from his second-row, then it is to the Bath man that he should turn. Attwood would improve the scrummaging power of the team, but can Lancaster afford to leave out one of the English pack's two outstanding athletes?
The English back-row is fiercely competitive. Captain Chris Robshaw is a guaranteed starter, but the other two spots are not confirmed. Billy Vunipola and Ben Morgan seem to be in a straight battle for the No. 8 spot, whereas Tom Wood and Tom Croft are the options at blindside.
Wood’s work rate is valued by Lancaster, but Croft is a brilliant broken-field runner and the finest line-out jumper England have had for years. But on the soft grounds of the English autumn, Wood has the advantage.
The difficulty is that neither Wood nor Robshaw are consistent ball-winners. Turnover ball is so crucial to beginning potent attacking plays, and England lack a quality exponent at the break-down. Lancaster knows this, and he must be exasperated by the exile of Toulon’s Steffon Armitage.
The 2014 European Player of the Year is dynamic and a master of the break-down dark arts. If Lancaster wanted to keep Wood and Robshaw, Armitage could play at No. 8, where he often features at club level. Lancaster must decide whether a World Cup on home soil and being without a world-class back-rower is sufficient reason to exercise the “exceptional circumstance” clause in the RFU’s refusal to pick overseas-based players.
The powerful Manu Tuilagi is a guaranteed starter at centre, but who should partner him?
Midfield has been a problem for England since the retirement of Will Greenwood. After an ill-conceived positional switch for the second Test against New Zealand, Manu Tuilagi should now be assured of the No. 13 shirt. Inside him, there are at least five options.
In terms of complementing styles, Billy Twelvetrees is hypothetically the best fit, but Lancaster relegated him to the stands after a disappointing second Test in Dunedin. Luther Burrell plays at 12 for Northampton, but for all his qualities, he can be quite erratic in defence. Kyle Eastmond showed great promise in the first Test, but after being left out for the second, he looked out of sorts in the third Test. Lancaster did not manage his situation very effectively.
The final two options are most left-field. Cross-code convert Sam Burgess could be a fantastic inside-centre in union, but he faces a battle against the clock in order to prove himself before the 2015 World Cup. There is also the strong suggestion that Bath, who will pay his wages, will play him in the back-row.
In the likely event of Burgess not making it, England could consider playing Owen Farrell at No. 12. His defence, physicality and game-management skills are all suited to that position, and it would allow Lancaster to play a more creative fly-half, perhaps George Ford, who played alongside Farrell for the England age-group sides.
This is a key decision that will affect the shape of the back line, and one Lancaster must get right.
As touched upon in the last slide, England could play George Ford or Danny Cipriani at No. 10 and move Owen Farrell to No. 12. However, Stuart Lancaster is likely to stick with Farrell calling the shots at fly-half.
That leaves Ford, Cipriani, Freddie Burns and Stephen Myler battling for a role on the bench. Of the three, Myler is the best kicker, but he appears to be the furthest down the list. That Burns started the two Tests for which Farrell was absent would seem to place him ahead of Cipriani, whilst George Ford missed the New Zealand tour through injury, but he was the cover for Farrell during the Six Nations.
If Farrell does play at No. 10, then the only reason to take him off or bring on a different fly-half would be if England are behind and in need of inspiration. Only Cipriani and Ford can provide that spark, but Lancaster has to decide who is most likely to open tight defences.