As England’s World Cup preparations began with a 19-14 win over France, the game was a perfect opportunity to showcase that the extent of talent available to Stuart Lancaster does not simply lie in the 15 regular starters.
Alex Goode, Anthony Watson, Sam Burgess and Henry Slade, amongst others, were given the opportunity. All took them with vigour and outstanding play that may surely leave Lancaster in doubt as to the security of some of his first team options.
Goode, in at fullback ahead of head injury victim Mike Brown, gave a performance of grounded defensive duties combined with a vision for the attack. Alongside Owen Farrell, he contributed greatly to ball movement and finding gaps in the French defence to exploit. If there were any reason for Mike Brown to look over his shoulder, it was his performance today. With very little to choose between the pair, this is possibly Lancaster’s toughest call.
Sam Burgess’s big hit on Alexandre Dumoulin was a marker of how good he could be for the team. His sin binning after 36 minutes is a reminder he still has much to learn on the international stage. Yet it was his first international game. Mistakes are par for the course. He will learn, but the World Cup may have arrived a little too soon for the 26 year old centre.
This leaves Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph and Luther Burrell as prospective starting centres. As much as Slade was impressive against France, contributing big hits against physically imposing French opponents, the latterly mentioned Burrell and Joseph were such a key combination in England’s charge through the Six Nations. Burrell’s raw driving talent and Joseph’s ability to crash over the tryline almost at will suggests the pair may prove an immovable object for even the likes of Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt, not to mention Slade and Burgess.
As far as the wing goes – Jonny May seems to have the number 14 shirt locked down. As a three year seasoned pro of the international setup, he is no stranger to the big stages, and experience will prove vital here. As for the other wing – Anthony Watson could have done little else to prove himself to his coach. The beauty in his footwork for his first try was similar to that of Quade Cooper! He has the speed and the power as well as the height and balance to compliment it, and the possibility of him being on the plane is a very real one. While he is set to be on the plane, his chances on the pitch rest on Lancaster’s view of Jack Nowell. He excelled during the Six Nations trouncing of France with a pair of tries, and been steady if unspectacular since then. I see him getting on the plane. But Watson’s flair may just see him ahead.
As far as progression goes, England have been placed in the Group of Death alongside Wales and Australia. With the top 2 teams going through, it will be a vicious 3 way fight to get out of there. However, if England do make it out, there is not reason why they can’t make at least the final 8.
Prediction: Semi finals.