Lancaster keeps faith with winning squad
Rugby: England head coach Stuart Lancaster has named an unchanged 23-man squad for Saturday’s Six Nations game against France at Twickenham, but has a number of tight calls to make before naming his starting XV.
Wasps number eight Billy Vunipola was pressing hard for selection until he suffered an ankle injury in training today at England’s Surrey headquarters. As a result, Lancaster will select his starting side from the same panel that defeated Ireland 12-6 in Dublin, a result which left England top of the Six Nations table.
“We had to make some close calls but the team did very well in Ireland so we’ve gone with the same squad against France,” Lancaster said. “We are looking forward to getting back to Twickenham against what I am sure will be a highly motivated French team.”
France have lost their opening two matches for the first time in Six Nations history. The last time they made such a bad start to the championship was in 1982 Five Nations.
Despite naming an unchanged squad, Lancaster has some tough decisions to make ahead of revealing his team.
Danny Care has intensified the pressure on incumbent scrumhalf Ben Youngs with his match-winning performance for Harlequins against Leicester on Saturday. Saracens prop Mako Vunipola, who is rivalling Joe Marler to be England’s loosehead, was similarly impressive against Exeter to stake a claim for his first Test start.
England have used Vunipola as a high-impact replacement until now but he has impressed forwards coach Graham Rowntree.
“He played well (against Exeter), didn’t he? He has been one of the real breakthrough players of the season so far,” Rowntree said. “I am delighted with his progress. He demonstrates the strength we have got in many positions. I remember myself as a prop coming on and trying to get up to the pace of the game, trying to make an impact on the game and he does it better than I ever did.
“Who we start, it’s no bad thing for a person like him to sit on the bench. What I mean by that is he could start, I’m quite comfortable with him starting. It is horses for courses.”
Rowntree expects the biggest challenge to be up front, with England planning for the return of loosehead prop Thomas Domingo to the French frontrow.
“Philippe Saint-Andre is already saying this is their Grand Slam,” Rowntree said. “It will change the whole complexion of their championship if they win at the weekend and the way they will challenge us is through their forward pack. There is never a weak French scrum. We are preparing for Domingo. I think he will start.
“We have been watching him play for Clermont. He has been around that set-up for a few years now. He is an incredible scrummager, a compact little unit but technically very good. As an outfit, regardless of results, that area of the game is something we always respect with France.”
Another call Lancaster has to make is between Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley at hooker and he must decide whether to bring Manu Tuilagi back into the midfield or continue with the partnership of Billy Twelvetrees and Brad Barritt.