World Cup Preview: England

Group B Opposition: Argentina, Scotland, Georgia and Romania

Pedigree: Plenty of it.  Indeed, England are the great World Cup overachievers.  Nobody is better than they at gritting their teeth and finding a way to the final, no matter how awfully they are playing.  The memory is hazy, but I believe they won the cup in 2003.

Player to watch: Much depends on whippersnapper scrum half Ben Youngs.  He was dynamite in the autumn against Australia, when he set the tempo and unleashed the English backs at speed.  But two shockers in the Palindrome in the spring have raised questions about his ability to play on the back foot.  He is coming in to the World Cup on the back of injury and a delayed preseason.  Can he get his spark back? If Johnno gives Manu Tuilagi a run-out in August and he seizes his chance, England’s atttacking play could be transformed. The young lad isn’t quite yet the successor to Bod, but he is dynamic and exciting – just ask Barnesy.

Good Tournament: England expects and all that.  They will be looking to make the final, though a semi-final would be a pass mark for a young side.

Bad Tournament: If they bow out in the quarters or before, it will be considered a disappointing showing.

Prospects: This is a more talented, and better coached, squad than the one which somehow turned themselves around and made the 2007 final.  Looking through the side, there are plenty of reasons for the rose-clad chariot swingers to be cheerful.  Any England tight five will always be dogged and resilient, and the return of Matt Stevens augments an already strong front row.  Much (too much?) is expected of Courtney Lawes, and the backrow will be nicely balanced, with Lewis Moody and Nick Easter accompanied by one of the Toms Croft and Wood.

At half-back they’ve the youthful vigour of Youngs and Flood and outside them they’ve running threats in Chris Ashton (a contender for the top tryscorer of the tournament) and high-class full-back Ben Foden.

It’s a young side, and they have the look of a team enjoying themselves.  They’re playing a more attractive brand of rugby than has been seen from an English side in who knows how long, and they are the Six Nations champions.  But, as always with England, this leads to over-confidence.  In the spring, following wins against Wales and Italy, we had an explosion of media hyperbole.  England were primed to win the World Cup! They had destroyed the twin powers of Wales and Italy!  Swing Low! Expectations were checked after the defeat in Dublin, but we all know that once England get off to a winning start against Argentina, the media hubbub will begin again.
Besides the hype, there is also the material weakness in midfield.  Shontayne Hape has yet to show he is an international 12, and Mike Tindall will always be Mike Tindall, even if he spends his pre-season becoming Mr Ugly Royal Bird. What a pity Matthew Tait and Olly Barkley have been so poorly treated.  But if Johnson takes a risk, and gives Manu Tuilagi a chance to wreak havoc, things could get interesting.
Verdict: Should have enough to top the group, and they usually have France’s number, so a semi-final is very achievable.  Probably a top midfield away from being a finalist.

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Did somebody order a Power of Four wristband?

On tuesday, Egg Chaser took a look at the forwards he expects to be jostling for position on the flight down under. It’s still a long way off, so we’re not all going to agree. One commenter even made a case for Mushy Buckley as a Lion, so at the risk of upsetting any Johne Murphy fans out there, here we go with the backs…

Scrum half

Pole Position: Ben Youngs is exactly the sort of scrum half you’d want to take on the Aussies.  Struggled a little in the latter portion of the season but has plenty of time to iron out the kinks in his game.

Look out for: Conor Murray. The Munster scrum half had a breakthrough lat year, and looks every inch the complete player. Should be Ireland’s first choice nine next season.

Needs to improve: The 2009 Lions Mike Philips and Tomas O’Leary will need to get their mojo back to be in the mix.

Too late for: Eoin Reddan will be pushing over the hill by 2013.

Fly half

Pole Position: Jonny Sexton looks by far the most complete and reliable of the options.  Needs to bring consistency to his game at test level, and the shirt is his.  Toby Flood would provide ample back-up.

Look out for: George Ford is already causing excited mutterings among England fans, who wouldn’t overhype a player lightly.  He is just 18, but served notice of his considerable talent in the recent U20 World Cup.

Needs to improve: James Hook has talent in abundance and wants to play more at fly-half but must learn to boss the game to be a Lions 10.

Too late for: The 2009 fly halves ROG and Stephen Jones will be past their best by the time 2013 rolls around.

Centres

Pole Position: Brian O’Driscoll will have to have the shirt torn from his back.  His body may give up before 2013, but for now he is still in poll position.  No inside centre currently stands out.

Look out for: Manu Tuilagi is the man who could take over from BOD.  He has some work to do on his defence, but looks explosive with the ball.  Fergus McFadden will be the established Ireland 12 by this stage and should be pushing for a spot.
It’s early days for two very young players who should make big strides between now and then: Scottish centre Mark Bennett has just signed for Clermont and is hoped to be the quality centre Scottish rugby has lacked for so long, while Luke Marshall will become a key player at Ulster next year.

Needs to improve: If Jamie Roberts can regain the form he showed in 2009, he is a nailed on tourist. But he has never looked the same player since.

Too late for: Possibly BOD and almost certainly Dorce.

Back Three

Pole position: Generally the most unpredictable, as form plays a huge part. On the left wing, Keith Earls and Max Evans look the most likely, while on the right it is hard to see Ashton and Bowe being displaced.  Ben Foden looks the real deal at 15, though Rob Kearney can challenge if he recovers from injury and adds greater variety to his counterattacking game.

Look out for: Lee 0.5p has been bedevilled by injuries, but if he can get back on track he can be world class.  Llanelli’s starlet George North also looks set to make a big impression, while Tim Visser becomes Scottish qualified next year, and if he can take his try-scoring exploits to test level will certainly be a Lion.

Needs to improve: Luke Fitzgerald endured a difficult season and needs to get back to his pre-injury form. If Oooooooooohhh Matt Banahan can add pace, a sidestep, softer hands, a brain and defensive positioning to his bulk, he could contend for a spot on the plane.

Too late for: Lee Byrne will be pushing 32, while it looks a tour too far for Shane Williams.

After the Six Nations next season, we’ll revisit and see how our Lions Ladder is looking.  No doubt we’ll try to rewrite history to make it look like we were right all along.