The decision has been made! 31 of England's finest rugby players have been given the good news: they will represent their nation at a home World Cup. Pretty good way to kick start a Thursday if you ask me. The inclusion of some has raised eyebrows while the sidelining of others has no less than shocked rugby fans across England and indeed, throughout the rest of the world.
Battle of the front row
England have traditionally been particularly strong in this area under the shrewd guidance of Graham Rowntree. Matches can be won and lost at the set piece, and with England predominantly benefiting from their dominance at scrum time in recent international encounters competition for a place in the front 3 is at an all-time high. Out of the prop's, the familiar faces of Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler and Dan Cole came out on top, joined by relative new boy Kieran Brookes and the now-fit David Wilson. A formidable front row by any standards, veteran Dan Cole has demonstrated flawless scrummaging since his return from a neck injury while Vunipola displayed his work rate and effectiveness in the loose for England against France. Marler has successfully made the England loosehead shirt his own through consistently proficient performances for England, and the battle for pole position is set to be explosive between the prop forwards . Fresh-faced Kieran Brookes embodies the new-age mobile prop, strong in both the set piece and around the park, while David Wilson's return from injury has hit England with faultless timing.
After Dylan Hartley's early exemption from the World Cup squad due to ill-discipline, Tom Youngs has grasped the number 2 shirt with both hands, closely followed by Bath's Rob Webber and Saracens' young Jamie George who is set to win his first England cap. While many would have been surprised by previous Lion Alex Corbisiero's axe from the squad, as well as Exeter's young Luke Cowan-Dickie being left out of contention, there is no arguing with the superior fitness of those who have been chosen; in the prime of balancing their fitness, finesse and strength.
Lock and back-row contests
Another talking point of the scrum concerns the so-called 'engine room' which has proved to be a highly competitive forward position within the England camp. Saracens' George Kruis secured his place in the second row off the back of some outstanding performances for club and country throughout last season, alongside the towering frame of Courtney Lawes who has proved himself a potent threat in both attack and defence. The return of previous Lion Geoff Parling to the England set up provides a calm and experienced head, charged with the responsibility of commanding the lineout. After his rehabilitation from injury, Joe Launchbury's notable performances for Wasps in the tail end of the season have also impressed Rowntree and Lancaster and have secured his position in the squad. While the likes of Maro Itoje and Dave Attwood have missed out this time round, Lancaster has been quick to highlight the promise that he and other young and upcoming forwards have and has nodded towards their future inclusion within the England setup.
The inclusion of captain Chris Robshaw and England veteran James Haskell amongst the back-row came as little surprise; both having executed stand-out performances in an England shirt throughout the Six Nations and previous QBE Autumn Internationals. Ben Morgan has muscled his way back in to the number 8 jersey after embarking on fierce rehabilitation from a broken leg earlier in the season and is joined by Billy Vunipola who has enjoyed consecutively good performances for Saracens. Northampton's Tom Wood has also secured his place in the back-row through decent performances in the warm-up games coupled with his previous international experience. Harlequin's Nick Easter and Northampton's Calum Clarke were narrowly edged out of the squad, despite executing good performances in the run-up to selection.
Scrum and Fly-Half's
As was more or less expected, the three spaces allocated to scrum-half were claimed by Ben Youngs, Danny Care and Richard Wigglesworth, all of which have displayed great distribution, communication and control in their given roles. Ben Youngs has clearly won the starting shirt off the back of a successful six nations, however Wigglesworth's pinpoint accuracy in his kicking game for Saracens as well as immaculate distribution has secured his spot in Lancaster's spot. Danny Care has returned to form after a disappointing few months for both club and country, and has demonstrated in training and the warm-up matches his threatening talent as both a distributor and running threat.
Similarly, the naming of Owen Farrell and George Ford as outside-half's was of little shock to the rugby world. Since Farrell's early involvement in the squad he has displayed his ability to both attack and defend threateningly, priding himself on the accuracy of his goal-kicking and back-line distribution. Ford has shown both flair and control at 10 for Bath during the premiership, seamlessly emulating this during the Six Nations for England. Both Henry Slade and Alex Goode, also named in the squad, can stand in at 10 if needs be, giving Lancaster plenty of selection options in case of injury.
At the centre of it all...
Possibly England's most competitive position, the jostling for a place in the centre has sparked numerous of debates among players, coaches and fans alike. After trying out various combinations Lancaster decided that Saracens' Brad Barritt was a sure pick, no doubt his immovable defense and cool head making him a player Lancaster can truly rely on. Joining him are the quick feet of Jonathan Joseph who extensively impressed over the course of the Six Nations, as well as youngster Henry Slade who's versatility has earned him a precious spot in the backline, One of the more controversial selection choices is the inclusion of league convert Sam Burgess over Luther Burrell, evidence of the coaching team's faith in Burgess' ability despite his single international cap. The confirmation that Leicester's Manu Tuilagi would not be considered for selection due to his recent conviction of assault may have previously disappointed England fans, however Lancaster's choice centres combine extensive speed, power and footwork to threaten in attack.
Lancaster's 'Back Three'
Competition for a place in the back 3 has been hotly contested both in training and in the warm up games against France. Mike Brown was a definite inclusion at full-back; his faultless aerial work and kicking game has made him integral to both England's attack and defense, not to mention his talent as a running threat and distributor. Bath's Anthony Watson and Gloucester's Jonny May provide England's pace on the wings combined with deceptive power and dancing footwork rarely failing to unsettle the defense. Jack Nowell has also fought his way back in to the squad after displaying his talent both on the wing and at outside centre for Exeter, making him an exciting and versatile prospect for Lancaster's squad. Alex Goode has also been included in favour of Danny Cipriani, proving himself a steady catch under the high ball and able to play at 10 if needed.
So, there you have it. England's 31-man squad has been declared and now Lancaster and his charges will look ahead to their next challenge in the form of Ireland at the weekend. Although young and relatively inexperienced, the promise and talent within the squad is clear to see. Despite plenty of talking points, Lancaster's squad looks set to take the World Cup by storm, but will talent and determination be enough?
Final World Cup Squad
Props: Joe Marler, Dan Cole, Kieran Brookes, David Wilson, Mako Vunipola
Hookers: Tom Youngs, Rob Webber, Jamie George
Second Row: Joe Launchbury, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling
Flankers/No.8: Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood, James Haskell, Ben Morgan, Billy Vunipola
Scrum half's: Ben Youngs, Danny Care, Richard Wigglesworth
Fly half's: George Ford, Owen Farrell
Centre's: Brad Barritt, Sam Burgess, Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph
Wings: Jonny May, Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell
Fullback: Alex Goode, Mike Brown
Fullback: Alex Goode, Mike Brown