A new era is set to begin tomorrow when England’s interim coaching staff name their Elite Player Squad in preparation for next month’s Six Nations Championship.
Head Coach Stuart Lancaster will name a 32-man group tomorrow that will shape the core of his plans to rebuild the national side following a Rugby World Cup that would be best forgotten if it hadn’t caused so much controversy.
With the trio of Lancaster and assistants Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell indicating a fresh approach - as well as having nothing to lose in their current positions - the EPS is set for some fresh blood to be introduced.
In the pack there is set to be a shake-up, with Andrew Sheridan’s injury woes continuing and leaving space for some of the younger props to make an impression.
Harlequins’ Joe Marler has been excellent at loosehead, while Alex Corbisiero showed he can step up to test rugby in last year’s championship-winning campaign.
But Marler and Corbisiero may face a struggle up against Gloucester’s Nick Wood, who has been one of the form scrummagers in the Premiership this season and deserves to be in contention.
Dan Cole and Matt Stevens are likely to be assured of the tighthead roles, but there is plenty of debate within the hooker position following Steve Thompson’s enforced retirement.
Dylan Hartley is a certainty, but Quins’ Joe Gray could be the standout as his deputy in the no.2 role, while Saracens’ Jamie George has continued to blossom under the experience of club team-mates John Smit and Schalk Brits.
In the second row, Courtney Lawes is guaranteed a place as long as his injury concern clears up, but the other selections could see players of little or no experience.
George Robson has been a towering presence for Harlequins and Dave Attwood has underlined his potential in the last couple of years at Gloucester and now Bath, and both should be assured of a spot.
The final second-rower could be Saracens’ Mouritz Botha, but I’d like to see London Irish’s Matt Garvey given a chance having been superb for the Exiles this year.
As for the back-row, the much anticipated selection of Chris Robshaw should be confirmed after being one of the players of the season so far, along with regular flankers in the squad such as Tom Croft and Tom Wood.
Luke Wallace has shown he is a great young talent at table-topping Quins, and with Lewis Moody retired and James Haskell unavailable in Japan he could be a surprise inclusion.
But my personal choice would be Northampton’s Phil Dowson, who can cover any position in the back-row and despite being the wrong side of 30, he’s consistently performed well for the Saints.
He may miss out though with Lancaster looking to the future - which could also count against number eight Nick Easter, who has been rumoured to be the shock absentee from the squad.
But the 33 year-old has been in the best form of his career since returning from New Zealand, and could still get the nod ahead of Leicester’s Thomas Waldrom.
Probably the best news of this short year so far for Lancaster has been Ben Morgan announcing his international loyalty to England; the Scarlets man is set to be the number eight for his country of birth for many years to come and is set to earn his chance in a few weeks time.
In the backs there are a few dilemmas that the interim management will have had to try and address with injuries and indiscipline causing problems, not least at scrum-half.
Danny Care has been brilliant since injury ended his World Cup dreams, but off the pitch his brushes with the law, in particular his arrest for drink-driving on New Year’s Eve, left Lancaster no choice but to omit him from possible selection.
There’s no doubt it was the right decision and Care will hopefully learn from his mistakes and come back a better person and player. However, it now gives Ben Youngs a chance to cement the number nine jersey.
Wasps’ Joe Simpson is set to stake a claim in the championship, but the third spot is more difficult, with Saracens starlet Ben Spencer being mentioned after impressing since his move from Cambridge.
Despite this, Leicester could be set to lose their two main scrum-halves on international duty with Micky Young the most likely available for the final spot.
At fly-half Toby Flood is a certainty, but he is set to miss the opener against Scotland at Murrayfield and could lead to Charlie Hodgson being recalled to the squad, with Saracens team-mate Owen Farrell being the bright young hope at 10.
Had Flood been fully fit going into the Six Nations I would’ve had Farrell and Gloucester’s rising star Freddie Burns included. But Hodgson’s experience will be crucial going into a pressure cooker situation like a Calcutta Cup clash especially after Jonny Wilkinson’s international retirement.
The centres are likely to see some fresh faces; Manu Tuilagi is a definite selection despite his hamstring injury possibly ruling him out of the opening game, and Matt Banahan is another set to feature after continuing to grow into the 13 slot at Bath.
At 12 there looks set to be a real shake-up; the likes of Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape are on their way out, and in their place are the in-form Brad Barritt and Jordan Turner-Hall who have really grown in stature the past couple of seasons – although it could be 20 year-old Farrell that earns the nod in one of the centre positions.
On the wing, Chris Ashton will be included and is likely to be joined by Gloucester’s Charlie Sharples who has had a brilliant breakthrough year at Kingsholm.
There are many other young guns up for selection, such as Sharples’ team-mate Johnny May, Saracens’ James Short and Wasps flyer Christian Wade. I would love to see Wade get the nod; his eye for the tryline and acceleration is second to none.
Finally at full-back Ben Foden is possibly the first name in the squad let alone at 15, while Mike Brown and Nick Abendanon should battle it out for that final spot, with Delon Armitage’s continued indiscipline letting him down.
Whoever gets the nod today will be part of the biggest overhaul to an England squad in years, and will hopefully begin a bright new era after the darkness of recent months.
My Selection: Props; Joe Marler (Harlequins), Nick Wood (Gloucester), Dan Cole (Leicester), Matt Stevens (Saracens); Hooker; Dylan Hartley (Northampton), Joe Gray (Harlequins), Jamie George (Saracens); Second-Row; Courtney Lawes (Northampton), George Robson (Harlequins), Dave Attwood (Bath), Matt Garvey (London Irish); Back-Row; Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Tom Croft (Leicester), Tom Wood (Northampton), Phil Dowson (Northampton), Nick Easter (Harlequins), Ben Morgan (Scarlets)
Scrum-Half; Ben Youngs (Leicester), Joe Simpson (Wasps), Micky Young (Leicester); Fly-Half; Toby Flood (Leicester), Owen Farrell (Saracens), Charlie Hodgson (Saracens); Centre; Manu Tuilagi (Leicester), Matt Banahan (Bath), Jordan Turner-Hall (Harlequins), Brad Barritt (Saracens); Wing; Chris Ashton (Northampton), Charlie Sharples (Gloucester), Christian Wade (Wasps); Full-Back; Ben Foden (Northampton), Mike Brown (Harlequins)
So what do you think? Who should feature in the Elite Player Squad as England look to the long-term? Leave a comment and let us know your views.