England ponder World Cup mix
August 14, 2011
England manager Martin Johnson has plenty of food for thought following his side's defeat to Wales in Cardiff © Getty Images
England manager Martin Johnson revealed in the wake of his side's Millennium Stadium defeat to Wales that he knows the make-up of the 30-man squad that will board the plane to New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup.
The identity of those individuals will not be confirmed to the wider world until August 22, giving us a week or so to debate the make-up of that party. Who's in? Who's out?
Johnson made an initial cut to his squad earlier this month, casting aside flanker Joe Worsley and winger David Strettle among others. Ten more players are set to suffer World Cup heartache in the next week although injuries may yet cause a re-think.
So who is going to get the nod? The exact selection will depend on the positional breakdown that Johnson and his coaching team opt for. Sir Clive Woodward's squad for 2003 differed from that chosen by Brian Ashton for the defence of the crown four years later and Johnson's preference may be different once again due to the versatility of certain players and the demands of the modern game.
Veteran winger Mark Cueto looks set for his second World Cup appearance as one of two speedsters along with the prolific Chris Ashton. Ben Foden appears to have the fullback berth nailed down but the presence of a resurgent Delon Armitage will keep him on his toes. The decision to release Ugo Monye back to Harlequins this past weekend looks to have ended his World Cup hopes while the tournament may have come too soon for Gloucester's Charlie Sharples - despite his impressing during England's training camp.
Matt Banahan will no doubt provide cover out wide but will also form part of the midfield mix. The inclusion of 20-year-old Manu Tuilagi, who surely cemented his place with a try on debut earlier this month, will hog the headlines but time will tell if he lines up at the heart of England's challenge. Mike Tindall, Shontayne Hape and RIki Flutey are set to join him on the plane later this month.
The battle for the England No.10 shirt is also set to prompt widespread debate with Jonny Wilkinson having emerged as a real challenger to Toby Flood - who steered England to Six Nations glory earlier this year. Johnson will have welcomed Wilkinson's return to top form and Flood's high-profile failure to get England across the Grand Slam line against Ireland will still be fresh in the mind.
Saracens fly-half Charlie Hodgson has seen action in both games against Wales, as understudy to Wilkinson and then Flood, and despite his experience he may miss out. Scrum-halves Joe Simpson and Richard Wigglesworth look destined for a similar fate with Danny Care leading the chase for the No.9 shirt as Ben Youngs desperately battles back from knee surgery to reclaim his place in the pecking order.
The propping stocks of all the genuine World Cup contenders are set to go a long way to deciding their tournament fate. Matt Stevens' timely return to the Test match stage, along with his ability to pack down both sides of the scrum, certainly adds to England's arsenal especially with injury concerns over loose-head Andrew Sheridan. Alex Corbisiero looks to be another New Zealand-bound along with Dan Cole. Tim Payne was allowed to return to his club ahead of the second clash with Wales, leaving David Wilson as Johnson's other likely option.
The hooking reserves are little more straightforward, with Dylan Hartley the clear first choice and Steve Thompson and Lee Mears set to provide cover. The second-row will include a fit-again Courtney Lawes, who underlined his worth in the defeat to Wales, Tom Palmer and Louis Deacon with grizzled veteran Simon Shaw also set for a last hurrah - leaving Mouritz Botha on the outer.
The injury cloud is also hovering over the back-row with captain Lewis Moody facing a race against time to recover from his latest knee trouble. Form and familiarity dictates that James Haskell, Tom Wood, Tom Croft and Nick Easter travel, with Chris Robshaw and Hendre Fourie poised to fill any enforced void.
Once these hard decision have been made, Johnson faces another headache - which players make up his best team? There are clearly concerns on that front and while the clash with Ireland will hopefully provide some clarity it will not provide all the answers. Fate will also play its part on the treatment table, with fans not likely to be short of topics for debate between now and the big one.
England's 30-man Rugby World Cup squad?
Fullback/Wing: Mark Cueto, Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Delon Armitage
Centre: Shontayne Hape, Mike Tindall, Manu Tuilagi, Matt Banahan, Riki Flutey
Fly-half: Toby Flood, Jonny Wilkinson
Scrum-half: Ben Youngs, Danny Care
Prop: Andrew Sheridan, Dan Cole, Matt Stevens, Alex Corbisiero, David Wilson
Hooker: Dylan Hartley, Steve Thompson, Lee Mears
Lock: Courtney Lawes, Tom Palmer, Louis Deacon, Simon Shaw
Back-row: Lewis Moody, Tom Croft, Nick Easter, James Haskell, Tom Wood
Those already cut:
Those set to miss out?
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.