Last week, Stuart Lancaster selected his England team for the forthcoming Six Nations. There were some surprising selections made, including the exclusion of England's most experienced player Toby Flood who will ply his trade in France next season.
This year's Six Nations will offer an insight into how every squad is shaping up ahead of next year's World Cup, and if it can indeed be a Northern hemisphere side that walks away with the Webb Ellis trophy.
Unfortunately for England they will enter this years Six Nations with a rather long injury list. Manu Tuilagi, Tom Croft, Alex Corbisiero, Cristian Wade and Ben Foden are all expected to miss at least some part of the tournament, if not all of it. With this injury list Lancaster has made some exciting inclusions and the players chosen will have to repay the faith when the action gets underway in February.
Therefore after having had a long hard look over Lancaster's England squad, here is who I predict will be running out to Twickenham to play France on February 1st.
1. Dan Cole
It appears to be a straight shoot out between Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole for the number one shirt against France. With Alex Corbisiero out injured, it will come down to these two to try and stabilise the English scrum. That is why I have chosen to go with Cole. Against the French England will need a strong scrum, and Cole is still a superior scrummager to Vunipola. It is unlucky for the Tongan born prop to miss out, but I am sure he will make an appearance from the bench as he is so dynamic in open play.
2. Dylan Hartley
Based upon his performances this season, Dylan Hartley has firmly put behind him the disappointment of not being a Lion this Summer. The hooker has been brilliant at Northampton, their line out has been outstanding so far and the Saints pack is still scrummaging sides off the park. Hartley nearly quit his role as captain at the end of last season, it shows good management to keep at the heart of things and it will soon pay off for England. I expect to see Tom Youngs brought late on in many of the Six Nations matches due to the ball carrying option he offers.
3. Joe Marler
Marler takes place ahead of Vunipola once again due to his superior scrummaging ability. Marler has continued to improve his game and it is often forgotten that he is still only 23, very young for an International prop. Depending on how the scrum is going I expect Vunipola to replace Marler or Cole.
4. Courtney Lawes
Courtney Lawes has continued to improve this season and is starting to develop into a world class second row. The young lock has admitted that he has stopped hunting for the big hit and to let them come naturally, allowing him to stay fit all season. Furthermore the lock has continued to improve at the line out and has improved his ball carrying. Lawes is starting to fulfil the potential that has surrounded him since he made his debut for England.
5. Joe Launchberry
Another young lock that has continued to impress. Launchberry and Lawes are young enough to play alongside each other in the white of England for the next 10 years. Launchberry does all the graft expected of a second row, however for a man of his size he is quick and has a soft pair of hands that often fools the defender who expects him to a big and slow lump.
6. Tom Wood
Wood led England through the Summer tour of Argentina and appears to be a mainstay in this England side. Wood is never far away from what is happening in a match, he will is always pressuring players and often goes unnoticed for the effort he puts into the cause. Wood rarely misses a tackle and is often a lynchpin of England's defensive game.
7. Chris Robshaw
England's captain will need to lead England to a successful campaign if he can be expected to remain captain for next years World cup. Critics often say England need a out and out openside flanker, but whenever these criticisms are spoken Robshaw puts in a performance that justifies his position in the squad. Like Wood he goes about his business selflessly but can be brilliant at helping to turnover loose ball.
8. Billy Vunipola
Vunipola has justified his move to table topping Saracens with some brilliant performances so far this season. Like his brother he is so dangerous in the rough but his pace and ball carrying ability means that he cannot be left out of this side. Expect to see the rampaging no. 8 popping up in the centres and getting over the gain line.
9. Lee Dickson
Dickson has continued to out perform both Danny Care and Ben Youngs this season. No doubt that scrum half is a position of strength for England and it will be a hot contest to see who actually starts behind the scrum. Dickson's speed of distribution is better than that of both Care and Youngs and that is why I predict him to start.
10. Owen Farrell
Farrell is still England's starting fly half despite the activity surrounding this position. George Ford is a more exciting attacking player than both Farrell and Stephen Myler, but Farrell's experience and solidity will see him chosen ahead of both. Despite this it wouldn't surprise me to see either come off the bench, Myler offers another reliable boot while Ford would be the suitable choice when chasing a game.
11. Jonny May
Arguably the only bright aspect of Gloucester's season so far. Jonny May will offer pace out wide that England have been missing since the days of Jason Robinson. May's explosive pace and ability to cover a number of positions make him a valuable player within the England camp. Anthony Watson is another flyer who is included and is unlucky to miss out.
12. Billy Twelvetrees
The centres is an area where England need to improve and the cause isn't helped by injury to key player Manu Tuilagi. I expect Twelvetrees to be selected at inside centre due to his reliability in defence and the fact he offers another kicking option with his left boot. Kyle Eastmond has continued to play well for Bath and will certainly get some game time during the campaign.
13. Luther Burrell
Burrell has excelled at Northampton and due to the absence of Manu Tuilagi should start at outside centre. The big centre has not only shown the he can blast holes through the middle but also has a good pair of hands that can open up holes elsewhere. It is good news for Burrell that he normally plays at inside as Manu Tuilagi will be a certain starter upon his return.
14. Chris Ashton
Ashton has got back to his scoring ways this season for Saracens and should start on the wing due to the experience he now has for England. However with players such as the injured pair Cristian Wade and Marland Yarde as well as Anthony Watson all pressing for places Ashton's dominance in this position could soon be over.
15. Mike Brown
With Ben Foden out injured, Brown is almost certain to start at full back. The Harlequin has all the natural attributes of a good full back and now has International experience to help nail down the no. 15 jersey. Alex Goode offers a much more tactical game, but Brown's solidity should see him starting as England's last line of defence.
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