England World Cup warm-up: four key decisions for Lancaster
Several stars are in the last chance saloon as England head to Paris for final warm-up match
Paris in August is traditionally a quiet month in the French capital with the locals sunning themselves on Mediterranean beaches and leaving the city to hordes of American tourists. But tomorrow Paris will be invaded by several thousand English rugby fans, in town to eat, drink and cheer on their team in the second of two World Cup warm-up matches.
Last Saturday at Twickenham England beat Les Bleus 19-14 in a match that did little dispel the belief that the likely winners of this year's tournament will come from the southern hemisphere. On Saturday evening the two old foes meet again in Le Crunch II and this time it's the last chance for England's 36 players to stake a claim for inclusion in the final 31-man squad, which will be announced by coach Stuart Lancaster next week.
Lancaster will already have a good idea of most of his squad, relying heavily on the players he's shown faith with over the past few seasons. But there are still a few places up for grabs, particularly in the centre and in the back-row, two positions England have struggled to impose themselves in recent seasons.
Not since Will Greenwood retired in 2004 have England possessed a world-class centre and it's the position that is causing Stuart Lancaster most headaches this summer. There are six centres currently in the squad - Luther Burrell, Jonathan Joseph, Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees, Henry Slade and Sam Burgess - with four likely to make the final squad.
Slade and Burgess (the former rugby league star) played last week, performing solidly if not that spectacularly. Tomorrow it's Joseph and Burrell who'll start the match with Twelvetrees certain to make an appearance from the bench. It will be a stern examination for all three because France have selected their strongest midfield in the gifted Wesley Fofana and the 18 stone behemoth Mathieu Bastareaud.
The one centre not to appear in either France test is the South African-born Barritt, who is nursing a sore calf but according to some reports is already assured of his place at the World Cup. Joseph is another who seems certain to make the cut, given his fine form during the Six Nations, but Burrell needs a big game tomorrow to convince Lancaster that he should get the nod ahead of Burgess.
"It is quite frustrating as a centre that we have got so many players coming through but it keeps you on your toes and keeps you grounded and grafting hard," reflected Burrell earlier this week. "It is brutal in an international squad... nobody is irreplaceable so you have to stay in peak form and try to stay one step ahead at all times."
England were well-beaten up front in last week's narrow victory at Twickenham, but that was with a scrum that included a new-look back-row including debutant Calum Clark and the recently fit-again Ben Morgan. For tomorrow's match in Paris Stuart Lancaster has chosen his strongest possible pack with the back-row combination that featured throughout last season's Six Nations.
Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and Billy Vunipola lack nothing in power and they'll challenge the French defence with their ball-carrying ability although the French have selected a monster of their own tomorrow at No8 in the giant Louis Picamoles.
None of the English trio have great tactical awareness and there remains concerns over the lack of a genuine open-side flanker, a point highlighted by 2003 World Cup winner Neil Back earlier in the week. "If you were putting together a world XV, [Robshaw] wouldn't be under consideration," said Back, who wore the No7 short 66 times for England. "He's improved over the ball, but if you're talking about the world's best players in that regard then he wouldn't be in the conversation."
Eight years ago Danny Cipriani was in an identical position to the one he finds himself in today - battling to be included in the England World Cup. He was 19 in 2007, touted as one of the most exciting backs of his generation, and though he played in the August warm-up matches that summer (also against France) he was omitted from the final England squad.
He eventually made his debut the following year, and was England's regular fly-half throughout 2008, mixing the impressive with the infuriating. It was his off-field behaviour that finally led the then coach Martin Johnson to axe him from the squad and he remained in the international wilderness for six years, though he became a staple of the tabloids because of high-profile flings with Katie Price and Kelly Brook.
Cipriani in 2015 has matured though he remains a mercurial talent, one not absolutely trusted by Lancaster, a former school teacher and ardent disciplinarian. Cipriani starts on the bench in Paris and he'll have to hope he gets enough of a run to showcase his skills and his versatility, which enables him to slot in at fly-half or full-back.
Such is England's strength in depth in this area that earlier in the month Stuart Lancaster felt confident enough to axe Chris Ashton, Marland Yarde and Semesa Rokoduguni from the World Cup squad, all of whom have featured out wide for England in recent seasons. That left Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell as the frontrunners to start the tournament as the first-choice fliers, but Jonny May's scintillating display last week against France has put Exeter's Jack Nowell under pressure.
He didn't feature in last week's match, sitting on the sidelines as May and Watson combined to run the French defence ragged at Twickenham. Watson displayed his razor sharp finishing skills in scoring two first-half tries, and with May dotting down for England's third score, the 22-year-old Nowell will have to produce something special in Paris to force his way into the starting XV for England's opening World Cup match against Fiji on September 18.
England: M Brown (Harlequins); J Nowell (Exeter), J Joseph (Bath), L Burrell (Northampton), J May (Gloucester); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), J Haskell (Wasps), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens).
Replacements: J George (Saracens), M Vunipola (Saracens), D Wilson (Bath), D Attwood (Bath Rugby), N Easter (Harlequins), D Care (Harlequins), D Cipriani (Sale), B Twelvetrees (Gloucest