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Settled England in good shape

09th January 2013 13:54

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Stuart Lancaster England 2012

Settled: Stuart Lancaster

More tweaks than radical overhaul, England's new EPS squad holds few major surprises as Stuart Lancaster prepares for the Six Nations.

Lancaster spoke at West Park Leeds Rugby Club about creating a period of stability - a very different statement from this time a year ago when the new coach made 15 changes from the previous EPS squad to launch a new era.

The promotions from the Saxons include Freddie Burns, Tom Youngs, Joe Launchbury, Mako Vunipola and James Haskell, who all impressed during the November Internationals, with David Strettle, Calum Clark and Billy Twelvetrees coming in from the outside.

The inclusion of Burns and Twelvetrees reflects the excellent level of understanding the Gloucester midfield combination have created in a relatively short space of time. Twelvetrees' exit from Leicester was seen as a gamble, yet more time on the pitch has seen him leapfrog former team-mate Anthony Allen.

Lancaster's initial plan when he took over as England coach was to operate with two distributors in midfield and Twelvetrees certainly fits that mould. How and when England decide to use him will be intriguing.

Burns' debut against the All Blacks was encouraging and his form in the Aviva Premiership this season warrants selection. For all the praise surrounding his playmaking skills, he is also the league's top point-scorer with 185.

Strettle's try against Sale highlighted his finishing abilities as he becomes the latest contender to try and fill what is becoming a troublesome position on the left wing. Accommodating one of Ben Foden or Mike Brown has been the preferred option in recent times but Strettle may change that mentality, whilst Christian Wade bides his time in the Saxons squad.

As for Clark, his reputation may be tainted due to the 32-week ban he received at the end of last season, but his versatility and athleticism remain assets that Lancaster admires.

The addition of Billy Vunipola to the England Saxons will be met with great anticipation after his performances for London Wasps so far this season.

The number eight will train with England during their camp in Leeds and it would be no surprise to see him involved off the bench at some point over the next two months given the impact he has made.

Beyond the senior squad, the brightest prospects in the Saxons include Worcester flanker Matt Kvesic and Wasps back Elliot Daly, with both youngsters in line to be part of England's tour of Argentina in June.

There are also two league converts with Joel Tomkins and Kyle Eastmond. Tomkins' defensive abilities and leadership in Saracens' midfield have caught the eye as he continues to adapt to Rugby Union, while Eastmond's impressive footwork has resulted in some great tries but he also has work to do, with the Saxons more likely to use him as a winger rather than in the outside centre role he fills at Bath.

A high number of changes to the EPS would have suggested that Lancaster was struggling to settle on the right squad to take England forward, but progress has been made since the first squad last year.

To drop a player such as Phil Dowson, who Lancaster has always held in high regard and led England against the Barbarians back in June, indicates that he is willing to make tough calls over personal attachment.

Expectations will rise in the coming weeks over what England will and should achieve in the Six Nations, but with a settled squad and minimal yet positive additions to the set-up, the omens are good.

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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