England's back row, rather than their midfield, will be the key point of difference when Stuart Lancaster finally confirms his starting XV to face Ireland in Dublin on Friday. The English side heading across the Irish Sea will feature a return for James Haskell of Wasps at flanker and a new role at No8 for Northampton's Tom Wood but the existing centre combination of Brad Barritt and Billy Twelvetrees is set to remain in situ.
Lancaster may have selected differently had Manu Tuilagi been in rampaging form on the training ground following his ankle injury but the management, for now, is understood to have opted to stick with the same back division that performed so well against Scotland at Twickenham last weekend. Tom Youngs is being tipped to retain his place at hooker in preference to Dylan Hartley, which leaves Haskell for the injured Ben Morgan as the only change in personnel.
As the attack coach Mike Catt stressed this week, the management were keen to retain Barritt's defensive skills and calm demeanour, while Twelvetrees and the fly-half Owen Farrell looked as if they had been playing together at Test level for years. In such circumstances, the option of using Tuilagi as a second-half impact sub has obvious appeal and has the additional virtue of keeping just about everybody happy.
The Irish back row will be keen to examine England's reshuffled loose forward trio but Haskell could not be more thrilled at the prospect of starting his first Six Nations game for two years. The Wasps forward was in Japan when Stuart Lancaster took over as England head coach and has experienced mixed feelings watching from afar. "The world didn't end which I thought it might do. I didn't know if I'd cry myself to sleep watching them play.
"As a player there have been times, particularly under new coaches, when I've looked down the barrel of a gun in terms of not playing for England again. I never knew if I'd get an opportunity again. Back in the autumn I did think to myself: 'I would definitely be missing this if I hadn't got back into the squad.' You get the smell of the hot-dogs and the fans on those special Twickenham Saturdays. I'll be a fan one day but at the moment it's way too soon."
Injuries to others have helped but the 27-year-old Haskell also says he has been refreshed by his stints playing in France, Japan and New Zealand. "I do feel reinvigorated," he insisted. "I knew if I went away I'd be more enriched as a person, would probably grow up and come back a better player. Before I went I didn't have to take a lot of responsibility for myself but I've learned I can deal with most things thrown at me. Running out to play for England is just as exciting as it ever was. I'll keep playing for as long as they want me."
His priority now is to cement his place again with a host of rivals snapping at his heels. "I'm an older member of the squad and I need to make an impact. You can't afford to have a soft game. Guys like Billy Vunipola, Matt Kvesic, Calum Clark and Tom Johnson … there are plenty of other young players coming through as well. It's about going over there and making sure we impose ourselves."
Youthful England players such as the Harlequins prop Joe Marler are also taking little notice of England's painful Six Nations defeats in Dublin in recent years. "I've not got any interest in the history of previous games," stressed Marler. "It's a new era and we're looking ahead."
England (probable): Goode; Ashton, Barritt, Twelvetrees, Brown; Farrell, B Youngs; Marler, T Youngs, Cole, Launchbury, Parling, Haskell, Robshaw (capt), Wood.
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