How do you improve on perfection? It is a nice problem for Stuart Lancaster to contemplate as he seeks to capitalise on England's stunning win over New Zealand last month. This week's elite player squad reshuffle will duly reflect that startling Twickenham result but the best teams never stand still. If Lancaster is true to his instincts, and wants England to keep on winning, one or two tweaks are still required.
Some are straightforward. Of the original senior squad named back in the summer, the injured Rob Webber has not played all season and Matt Stevens has stepped down from Test rugby. Under the elite player squad rules Tom Youngs and David Wilson, the reserve specialist tighthead behind Dan Cole, can both be drafted in as automatic replacements. With the Test bench having expanded to 23, there is also room for an extra prop which means increasing the squad from 32 to 33 players. Saracens's Mako Vunipola, therefore, will be included, too.
Technically Lancaster also has a maximum further 10 changes at his disposal before the Six Nations Championship, five in the seniors and five in Saxons, but in reality no one is counting too rigidly. The England management's relationship with the clubs is much improved and the rapid improvement of someone such as Joe Launchbury demands to be recognised regardless of how many other alterations there may be. The Wasps lock is only 21 but his range of skills, size, athleticism and work-rate have catapulted him from nowhere to a first-choice pick in a matter of months. Tom Palmer, who will be 34 in March and has played little rugby for Wasps lately, and Mouritz Botha should not count on too many more senior caps beyond this summer's tour of Argentina.
The other three seemingly vulnerable forwards named last summer are Phil Dowson, Tom Johnson and Thomas Waldrom. Two of them may yet survive but anyone who saw Matt Kvesic for Worcester against Leicester last week will know he, along with Steffon Armitage, is pushing hard. There is also James Haskell, with Northampton's Calum Clark and Wasps' Billy Vunipola, Maka's brother, also lurking. England need to imagine would might be required against Scotland and Ireland if, say, Chris Robshaw were injured and, as currently anticipated, Tom Croft is not fully firing until March.
That scenario could count in the combative Clark's favour, with Vunipola and Kvesic biding their time in the Saxons, as Lancaster has so far shown no inclination to recall the French-based Armitage.
Behind the scrum Alex Goode's untimely shoulder injury will, like Croft, not prevent him being named in the formal squad but does alter England's back three options. If Goode is not around it means Mike Brown and Ben Foden will be competing for the full-back jersey which, in turn, leaves England even lighter on the left wing. It seems David Strettle, on good form for Saracens lately, is still regarded as the leading alternative to Charlie Sharples rather than Wasps' rapid Christian Wade, although injuries can soon alter such pecking orders.
That leaves the midfield. Jordan Turner-Hall and Anthony Allen are both excellent club players but, for assorted reasons, have not made an unanswerable case to be Test regulars. Gloucester's Freddie Burns, as he did during the autumn, will step up from the Saxons and it would be a clear signal of positive intent if his club-mate Billy Twelvetrees joined him.
The latter can distribute, kick and run with equal facility and would fit neatly into Lancaster's portfolio behind Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph.
There will also be room for a little bit of calculated risk in the Saxons. The names Kyle Eastmond, George Kruis, Tom Savage and Elliot Daly deserve at least a mention in dispatches and it would not be a surprise if Joel Tomkins, increasingly assured at outside centre for Saracens, gains recognition. The whole point of A internationals is to see who can thrive outside his comfort zone or, in this instance, on a Friday night in February in Newcastle.
When even an intelligent, rational man like Conor O'Shea loses his composure on the subject of referees, there is clearly a problem. The standard of officiating in the Aviva Premiership has indeed been mixed but the more criticism the refs receive the worse the situation becomes. Andrew Small, castigated by Leicester the previous week, appeared beset by uncertainty at Wasps on Sunday and referred just about every decision to the television match official. Slippy, wet underfoot conditions make things even trickier but the time has come for players, coaches and administrators to remember rugby's oldest truth. Without a ref, useless or not, there can be no game.
HOLD ON TIGHT FOR…
Ospreys v Leicester. The Tigers were convincing winners in the reverse pool fixture but the Ospreys have perked up since then. Welsh rugby badly needs a pre-Six Nations boost and this is a perfect opportunity.
Leicester's front five will be viewing things rather differently.
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