Former England prop Jason Leonard believes the depth Stuart Lancaster has in the front row is a big positive ahead of the Six Nations.
England’s scrum rounded off November with a dominant performance against Australia. Now their resources appear even stronger in the tight five with the return of four British and Irish Lions in Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole and Geoff Parling.
Even without the ballast of Joe Launchbury and with Courtney Lawes temporarily unavailable, England look and feel strong up front.
Corbisiero will battle it out with Joe Marler, very impressive throughout 2014, and Mako Vunipola for the England loosehead role, with Leonard unable to call who will win the spot for the Six Nations opener on February 6.
“It’s a tough one,” Leonard said speaking to Planet Rugby.
“Joe Marler was fantastic in November, probably one of England’s most consistent performers. Alex Corbisiero is coming back and very well thought of within the England setup – another British and Irish Lion and playing at a very successful club as well at Northampton who will be challenging for honours.
“I don’t think there’s going to be much in it, with Mako Vunipola in there as well, it’ll be a close call either way.”
Leonard, who won 114 caps for England and five for the Lions, also believes the competition on the other side of the scrum is just as fierce.
Cole has returned to the squad for the first time since his long recovery from neck surgery, but a foot injury has left him in a race against time to face Wales.
That hasn’t stopped England from naming him in their 34-man training squad as one of two tighthead props, with Kieran Brookes relegated to the Saxons.
“Leicester have been very good at bringing Dan back,” added Leonard.
“Richard Cockerill said on Cole’s return from neck surgery that they wouldn’t rush it, 20 minutes here or there, but to play for England you need to rack up the minutes.
“The management will be looking at him and remembering that he was their first choice, but I’ve got to say that David Wilson has performed fantastically in the shirt.
“Kieran Brookes as well has stood out, so there’s more great strength in depth. It’s a conundrum for Lancaster, but a nice one to have.
“What’s good is that now you have one or two people to step in right across the squad and even more depth beyond that who can step up to the plate.”
That depth is particularly helpful when the injury count keeps rising.
Launchbury, Lawes, Manu Tuilagi, Ben Foden and Ben Morgan are all either completely ruled out or uncertain for the upcoming championship.
England had a similar story in November, prompting the question to Leonard whether such a thing as a full-strength Test side even exists anymore, or if success in international rugby now comes down to the players in reserve.
“I can’t remember the last time an England side had no injuries and everyone was available to play,” stated Leonard.
“Yes, it creates a selection headache if everyone is available, but I can’t remember the last time England had that situation and that’s part and parcel of the modern game now.
“Looking back on Stuart Lancaster’s reign, you didn’t really know about the depth that England truly had coming through when he took over and there wasn’t huge strength in depth.
“What he’s done is bring in lots of young players, who now have 20 to 40 caps. He’s created that strength in reserve which England have now.”
With their best side or not, England face a difficult schedule. Returning to Wales and the scene of that 30-3 humiliation from 2013, their worst performance under Lancaster, is an unforgiving opener. Add in trying to silence the current champions Ireland in Dublin and England winning their two away games seems like a monumental challenge.
Neither fixture however is a write-off, far from it, with Leonard believing that England, Ireland and Wales will all be feeling confident of lifting the trophy in March, although perhaps not with a Grand Slam.
“England have two very hard games away, but that means three games at home. You expect to win your home games and everyone has a hard game away or a potential banana skin somewhere in their fixture list.
“A Grand Slam for any side seems unlikely, but can England win in Cardiff? There’s a possibility there. Can they win in Ireland? Again, possibly.
“I think England could end up winning the Championship by winning their home games and nicking one away, but Ireland and Wales will be thinking the same as well.”
Jason Leonard was speaking at the launch of FLEXISEQ