England will definitely be changing their kit for Saturday's big game against Australia but precisely who will fill their new regal purple shirts remains unclear. No fewer than 37 different players reported to Pennyhill Park this week and competition for places within Stuart Lancaster's matchday squad is mounting steadily.
In addition to the imminent return of the winger Chris Ashton, who was suspended for the Fiji game, Lancaster has a range of options and intends to monitor a number of players in training on Tuesday before finalising his plans. While Manu Tuilagi (sprained foot) and Geoff Parling (shoulder) both sat out Monday's session, neither is a doubt for the Wallaby Test and injuries, for once, are not a major issue.
Among those pressing for inclusion are the London Irish centre Jonathan Joseph, his club-mate Alex Corbisiero, the Wasps lock Joe Launchbury, Northampton's Tom Wood and the Gloucester No8 Ben Morgan. Of those Corbisiero has only just returned from injury and is more likely to feature in the second half of the autumn series, while catapulting Joseph straight back into the starting XV also has a slightly premature feel to it. Up front, however, Lancaster has some increasingly hard choices to make.
As ever, it boils down to balance as much as individuals. If he sticks with Thomas Waldrom at No8, another big ball-carrying option is required somewhere in the back five of the scrum. Launchbury would certainly fit that bill but that would mean ditching Tom Palmer's experience. It is interesting to note that, should Palmer not start, England would potentially kick off with just three survivors from the side which thrashed Australia 35-18 in the same fixture in 2010.
Wood made a decent impression when he came on against Fiji but Tom Johnson also did plenty of good things, not least in the line-out. If Morgan is recalled at Waldrom's expense, however, both Wood and James Haskell enter the equation. Lancaster will not tinker for the sake of it but, in the interests of freshness, is clearly contemplating one or two new faces. "I'm reasonably comfortable making changes after a win as long as we retain our momentum. We've now got a group of 30 players who should all be able to fit in seamlessly and understand their roles and responsibilities."
Northampton's Courtney Lawes will also be a contender again once he proves his fitness for his club this weekend and among the players there is mutual recognition that very few places are guaranteed. "Whenever you're comfortable you're not going to get the best out of yourself," insisted Brad Barritt, desperate to retain his midfield berth against the Wallabies. "Competition is great and everyone is looking in the same direction."
All concerned also suspect Australia will be dangerous opponents following their 33-6 thumping by France in Paris. "Their ability to bounce back from hard defeats is legendary," warned Barritt. "They have a never say die attitude and we're expecting a big backlash at Twickenham." While there was a taunt from the Wallabies winger Digby Ioane on Monday that he was looking forward to going up against England's "pretty" boys.
Lancaster also anticipates a sharp improvement from Robbie Deans's team. "Irrespective of who plays we're aware there'll be a reaction to the performance. We need to be ready for it. They are a very good side and we need to make sure we are 15-20% better than we were at the weekend."
England will need to find even more to topple New Zealand on the evidence of the All Blacks' 51-22 defeat of Scotland. Lancaster was suitably impressed and admitted every other team in the world trailed behind the New Zealanders in terms of their basic skills from numbers one to 15. "It's a template every country is looking at and thinking: 'We need to develop the skills of our players to that level so everyone is comfortable on the ball,'" said Lancaster. "We've made good strides over the summer but we missed out on four or five tries against Fiji. We need to be ruthless if we're going to win at the highest level."
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