Time to shuffle the pack
February 16, 2012
Where does Stuart Lancaster slot in the now fit Manu Tuilagi? © Getty Images
When Stuart Lancaster got the interim post with England, I knew he would do a good job, but I have been pleasantly surprised over just how well he has done. I think he has conducted himself in the way that everyone wants and expects of an England coach - it has been strict and he's made some tough decisions. So far he's got the balance right of keeping the stability of the team and his next selection is really interesting with the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Toby Flood and Courtney Lawes all being fit and I think he is now within his right to make some changes.
The problem for Lancaster, however, is how many changes to make while still ensuring continuity. One man who must be feeling the pressure is Phil Dowson. But while he didn't play too well in his first game, he shone in the second match against Italy. It's unfortunate for him that Ben Morgan came on and has made a massive impact on both occasions. Tom Wood is another name to throw in the mix if fit - Robshaw might move to eight to fit in Wood at seven. That's another tough selection - he can't afford to make wholesale changes to a winning side - continuity and team spirit are important so he might temper it slightly.
And elsewhere, Ben Youngs is another man who may miss out. Youngs is the sort of guy who has the ability to make an impact as a sub. One of the reasons things haven't been going so well for Youngs is that he is trying so very hard to have the same impact as he did when he first burst onto the scene. He is most effective when he lulls the opposition into a false sense of security and then pounces when holes open up and that's going to be harder when you get a reputation as someone who can run from anywhere. Lee Dickson is different as it is all about the quality of his service.
One option could be to lull the opposition into a false sense of security and then bring Youngs on when the game is opening up. We've always had the Danny Care/ Youngs selection issue in the past when in fact they're two very similar players - Dickson adds something a little bit different and it's good for Lancaster to have both types of scrum-halves in the squad.
In regards to the centres, if you had asked me before the tournament about Tuilagi - I'd have said that he would walk straight back into the team when fit, but I reckon he should be an impact sub for the match with Wales and leave Brad Barritt in the centres alongside Owen Farrell.
But one aspect of England's game that has worried me is the lineout. It didn't function against Italy and it was poor against Scotland. I am not sure who's calling it - maybe Tom Croft - but last year it functioned well when Louis Deacon was calling it. It's a tough skill and certainly both times Geoff Parling has come off the bench it has been significantly better.
It is not straightforward for Lancaster. Tom Palmer was quiet in his first game but he answered all his critics in the second game. If Courtney Lawes is fit, you'd think he slots straight back in but this is a big selection dilemma for Lancaster. Mouritz Botha has been superb but Lawes would walk back into any side in the world at No.4. Does he drop Botha completely and have Parling on the bench if the lineout fails? It will be intriguing to see which way he goes.
Ahead of the match with Wales, one key area will be the front-row. I've been really impressed by Alex Corbisiero in particular. We knew that Dan Cole is an outstanding scrummager and that Corbisiero is good around the park but the London Irish man has proven that he can do both. He was helped by Castrogiovanni going off after 30 minutes against Italy as it looked like Castro was getting the upper hand. And if he keeps his place as you'd imagine he would, he will face a huge test against Adam Jones. The tight-head is a spikey character in more ways than one so that'll be a big test for them.
Lancaster will face his biggest test yet against Wales next time out. Wales are very confident at the moment which could count in England's favour as they may arrive at Twickenham over confident but my head says that Wales deserve to be favourites. George North is exceptional and they have some other class players who are all playing well. But my heart still believes that a young England side that has had two really good wins can use its exuberance to see them through while hopefully igniting their back division which would lead to an attractive and entertaining game.
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Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN