England's head coach Stuart Lancaster should be feeling quietly optimistic as he prepares to name his autumn Test squad on Thursday. The opening two rounds of the Heineken Cup has yielded a healthy crop of positives, not least Leicester's weekend Heineken Cup win over the Ospreys.
The timely form of Toby Flood, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and Manu Tuilagi is just what the House of Lancaster ordered.
Lob in the electric contribution of Danny Care, the return from injury of Courtney Lawes, Saracens's good work in Edinburgh and Brussels, and there is some useful momentum building prior to next week's pre-November training camp in Burton upon Trent. In past years, such positives have had to be balanced against a rising number of casualties and/or assorted off-field scandals. Not this year. As things stand only Tom Croft and Ben Foden are hors de combat and the post-World Cup acrimony is a receding memory.
There is greater depth, too. At full-back, for instance, both Mike Brown and Alex Goode look in splendid nick. Up front it seems Saracens's Mako Vunipola is destined for promotion to the senior squad on Thursday, leapfrogging Matt Mullan and Nathan Catt in the temporary absence of Alex Corbisiero. Slowly but surely, England's core is getting stronger.
The next trick is to mulch in some decent short-term results along with this potential. Australia's draw with New Zealand at the weekend was interesting in that regard. Are the All Blacks finally starting to tire at the end of a wonderful season? The number of turnovers in perfect conditions – from both teams – will certainly have encouraged England to wonder if three wins from their four home autumn Tests is not perfectly attainable.
For that to happen, Lancaster and co still need to iron out their best bets in the back row, midfield and on the wing. Croft is a big loss, providing as he does a line-out presence as well as ball-carrying pace, while Nick Easter has been playing with some authority for Quins at No8.
Then there is Steffon Armitage at Toulon. Even James Haskell is currently outside the senior Elite Performance Squad (EPS) and will await this week's announcement keenly.
My hunch is that Lancaster will stick with his two existing No8s, Thomas Waldrom and Ben Morgan, and also keep faith with Exeter's Tom Johnson on one flank with Chris Robshaw on the other, at least initially.
Tom Wood is still feeling his way back from his long-term foot problems and Calum Clark is banned from playing until 1 November. That leaves Phil Dowson and, probably, Haskell as cover, with Carl Fearns, Andy Saull, Matt Kvesic and Jamie Gibson required to bide their time. Tom Youngs, in the absence of the injured Rob Webber and Joe Gray, is in line to be Dylan Hartley's deputy.
Midfield? It continues to represent the biggest conundrum of Lancaster's regime, a knot to be unpicked in conjunction with his backline specialists Mike Catt and Andy Farrell. Anthony Allen and Jordan Turner-Hall are both senior EPS members without having persuaded many they are the men to hasten England to 2015 World Cup glory. Flood's return to form now opens up the possibility of Owen Farrell moving to 12; alternatively you could play the indomitable Brad Barritt alongside the speedy Jonathan Joseph and move Manu Tuilagi to the left wing, where he popped up to score Leicester's bonus point try on Sunday. It would be valuable, too, to give Gloucester's Freddie Burns some game time against Fiji; he has the creative nous, does not shirk a tackle and also kicks his goals. Farrell has the temperament, the defence and the kicking ability to be a fine second receiver. Tossing him the No10 jersey might be tempting but is not necessarily the ideal solution.
Wing is also a tricky one. A replacement is needed for Foden, and Charlie Sharples is only just back from injury. There are six possible contenders in the Saxons: Ugo Monye, Tom Biggs, David Strettle, Christian Wade, Jonny May or Miles Benjamin. You could easily add half-a-dozen other names to the debate in the shape of Matt Banahan, Jack Wallace, Marland Yarde, Matt Jess, James Short or James Simpson-Daniel. Monye will probably get the nod; at 29, he can still make it to 2015. Then again, Simpson-Daniel is only a year older and remains the most elusive of the lot. It would be wonderful, if a trifle romantic, to see him unpick Fiji and remind everyone what they have been missing.
Sadly, time does not stand still even for rugby genius. The way Scarlets' Gareth Maule stood up to Brian O'Driscoll and left the great centre trailing at the weekend was a classic example. O'Driscoll will concede nothing to anyone but this week's Ireland squad selection will also be eagerly awaited. Anyone who has seen Ulster play will already be aware Paul Marshall, Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson all look like potential Test performers in waiting. Given the 60-0 thrashing Ireland suffered to New Zealand in Hamilton in June, now would seem a good moment for a calculated punt or two.
Get Carter – again
The rumour mill in France is twitching once more, with informed sources suggesting Dan Carter is the subject of renewed interest from the wealthy Parisian club Racing Métro. Carter was close to agreeing a deal for Racing before last year's World Cup but eventually re-signed with the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. His contract includes a clause allowing him to take a sabbatical, however, and he is currently weighing up whether to take a year off, like Richie McCaw, or enjoy another lucrative spell in France, having previously turned out for Perpignan.
Hold on tight for...
Northampton v Saracens. These two clubs do not love each other and the England wing Chris Ashton may just receive a lively reception on his first return with his new club. They also happen to be placed first and fourth respectively in the current Aviva Premiership league table, separated by just two points. Heineken Cup, what Heineken Cup?
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