A new era dawns for England
Graham Jenkins
January 11, 2012

England have embarked on a new era with the announcement of a youthful-looking squad that is set to take its first baby steps in defence of the Six Nations title.

A selection packed with potential had the social media world awash with excitement where not so long ago it was all doom and gloom as far as England rugby was concerned. Stuart Lancaster's decision to inject some fresh faces - including nine uncapped players and a further four with just one cap to their name - may have been expected but its impact on fans still recovering from a forgettable Rugby World Cup campaign cannot be underestimated.

It can only be hoped that the feel-good factor extends to the side itself but the fact that England have already drifted in the Six Nations betting suggests they are yet to convince the bookmakers. It is a gamble, but a calculated one by a man who has little to lose and everything to gain. For many, England cannot sink any lower and this new crop, a little light on Test honours but boasting some significant experience in key roles, offers renewed hope.

So who are those charged with steering England out of the darkness by a coaching team who themselves have only just taken office? And do they have what it takes to restore the team's reputation both on and off the field?

Owen Farrell's ascent from England U20s straight into the elite ranks is no surprise given his stellar form and his flexibility as an option at fly-half or centre will be priceless as his side look to forge a fruitful midfield. As talented and composed as the 20-year-old may be, he will surely be seen as a little too fresh-faced to pull the strings for England's opener against Scotland with experienced team-mate Charlie Hodgson set to fill the void left by first-choice playmaker Toby Flood. With 46 Test caps to his name, Flood is the most experienced player in the mix and his absence is sure to be felt at Murrayfield and beyond.

What we are led to believe is the youngest England squad for 50 years - boasting an average age of just 25 - also includes another Saracens stalwart in the form of Brad Barritt who is long overdue a chance to reproduce his outstanding Premiership form on the Test match stage. With Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi another set to be sidelined for the early stages of the Championship his chance may come sooner rather than later but question marks remain in what will always be a pivotal part any Six Nations side hoping to push for honours with Quins' Jordan Turner-Hall another introduced to the equation. Saints scrum-half Lee Dickson, a former Scotland U19 international who flirted with a Test cap back in 2008, may well have benefitted from rival Danny Care's recent indiscretion but certainly warrants his place on form and should provide cover for Ben Youngs next month.

Scarlets' No.8 Ben Morgan, the subject of a tug-o-war between England and Wales, is another to make the grade riding a wave of promise that may yet carry him all the way into the Test side. The possible make-up up England's back-row in Edinburgh is still up for debate but rest assured that Morgan is not a passenger here for experience - he is a possible starter. A quarter of the squad, an amazing eight players, hail from Northampton with the presence of uncapped forwards Phil Dowson and Calum Clark underlining the good work being done at Franklin's Gardens by director of rugby Jim Mallinder and his staff.

Premiership leaders Quins can lay claim to four squad members with the yet untried and colourful prop Joe Marler joining the likes of Turner-Hall and flanker Chris Robshaw in the squad. Completing the quartet is fullback Mike Brown who ends three years in the international wilderness with a well-deserved recall and should push Saints' Ben Foden all the way for the No.15 shirt. Both Saints and Quins will be hit hard by the Six Nations when it comes to resources and their concerns will be echoed by Wasps whose delight at the selection of uncapped hooker Rob Webber will be tempered by their current league plight.

" of experience does leave a leadership vacuum of sorts with Flood's injury adding to these concerns. Lancaster's clear desire for a "leadership group" to emerge during their sojourn in Leeds may hint at the lack of an obvious candidate but signifies a healthy respect for the kind of set-up that has served the All Blacks well."

Heading in the opposite direction are a host of names whose days appear numbered despite Lancaster insisting the door remains open. Cast aside are World Cup squad members Mike Tindall, Mark Cueto, Nick Easter, Shontayne Hape and Simon Shaw - some will have been closer than others to retaining an interest in the England set-up - with Delon Armitage and Matt Banahan demoted to the Saxons. Meanwhile, the retirements of Jonny Wilkinson, Lewis Moody and Steve Thompson and James Haskell's rugby travels in the Far East triggered further changes. Add in the injury-forced omission of Richard Wigglesworth and Andrew Sheridan and you have a squad that is a shadow of that which tried and failed to go toe-to-toe with the world's best a few short months ago.

As welcome as a fresh approach is, the departure of a wealth of experience does leave a leadership vacuum of sorts with Flood's injury adding to these concerns. Lancaster's clear desire for a "leadership group" to emerge during their sojourn in Leeds may hint at the lack of an obvious candidate but signifies a healthy respect for the kind of set-up that has served the All Blacks well. But instead of Test centurions Richie McCaw and Mils Muliaina, Dan Carter, Brad Thorn, Conrad Smith and Andrew Hore we have the relatively green hooker Dylan Hartley, Saints flanker Tom Wood, Flood and his Tigers team-mate Ben Youngs among those mentioned by Lancaster as potential skippers.

British & Irish Lions international Tom Croft is another obvious contender while back-row rival Robshaw is many people's choice - despite the 25-year-old's slightly concerning Test cap tally that totals just one. In contrast, a 26-year-old McCaw had 36 caps when he took on the All Blacks captaincy while a 28-year-old Martin Johnson had won 42 caps and also led the Lions before he took on the honour of leading England. But others will point to Will Carling, England's youngest captain since 1931, was appointed skipper in 1988 at the age of 22 with just seven caps to his name. Food for thought and then some.

This new-look England will be granted a certain amount of leeway in terms of performance and results as they bid to find a winning blend but we will have to wait and see if they are afforded the time to show that they can walk before being expected to run.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.

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